What do your customers think of your performance? What do your sales people think your customers think? A survey shows that the perceptions of sales people may not reflect reality.

You really can´t do right by your customers if you don´t know what they think about you as a supplier. And for everything from pricing strategies to product offerings, regular reality checks with your clients are essential. So last year, Eka Chemicals – BU Pulp and Paper Chemicals – conducted a global customer satisfaction survey.

In parallel with this global customer survey, the company polled its own sales force to see what sales people thought the customers would say. The differences between the results revealed a curious discrepancy: customers were actually more satisfied with Eka than its own sales people thought they would be.

Lotta Bülow, Marketing Communications Manager, Eka Chemicals
Lotta Bülow, Marketing Communications Manager, Eka Chemicals
Eka hired Opticom, a Stockholm-based survey firm, to carry out the study. Lotta Bülow, Marketing Communications Manager for the BU´s pulp and paper business [which makes up 80% of the BU´s total sales], explains. “Opticom is a very skilled firm that works globally and has people speaking all the major languages. They are also specialists in the pulp and paper industry, so they know our business well. They did about 240 interviews in all – 100 in Europe, 100 in North America, and 40 in South America and Asia-Pacific. Of those, 60 were face-to-face and the rest by phone. All of them were in the local languages.

“What we found was that 90 percent of our existing customers thought of Eka as their first choice – an exceptionally high number when it comes to customer loyalty. And when we asked our sales people how our customers perceive us in terms of performance, product quality, technical service and so on, the differences were astonishing. For example, 50 percent of our people thought that pricing was a weak point, but only 11 percent of our customers thought price was a factor. There were similar discrepancies on such points as technical service or the level of innovation in our company.”

It isn´t clear why the gap is so wide, but Bülow speculates that restructuring within Eka could have had some effect on self-esteem. She notes that the restructuring has been coupled with some changes in service that sales people might think would negatively impact customer perceptions. She also notes that those people in the organization who have the most customer contact are going to be the ones most often exposed to negative feedback – whether that is simply the negotiating strategy of the customer to try to win more favorable terms and prices from the sales rep, or genuine dissatisfaction when something goes wrong with an order. After all, when everything happens just the way it is supposed to, it´s not necessarily the case that the customer will lavish praise on the same sales rep.

She notes, revealingly, that the gap between customer perceptions and sales rep expectations was much lower in Asia than in the other regions. “Asia is of course an emerging market so sales are increasing there. It´s probably more fight and more fun in that environment than in an established market.”

Bulow adds that the process followed in carrying out the survey was important to its success, and has also enabled Eka to use the survey as a marketing tool. “We were very thorough in our preparations,” she says. “We made sure to have the right customer mix, and sent an introductory letter from our BU manager to each customer, carried out the interviews in the local language, and then followed up with letters and phone calls after we´d completed the survey, thanking them and summarizing the results. And then with our own people, we did workshops in each geographical region with all our people who have contact with the customers, rating the results and developing action plans in each region to address areas where we could improve.”

The key lesson learned from the survey, says Bülow, is the importance of communication at all levels. “You´ve got to communicate more with your customers so you understand what they want and what they are thinking, and communicate more with your own people so that you are the same track. And when you get the results, you need to communicate those both internally, and to your customers as well to show how you respond to their concerns.”

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