It’s the negatives that count

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The excellence of a gift lies in its appropriateness rather than in its value.” –Charles Dudley Warren

No one enjoys negative feedback – I think we can agree on that bon mot if nothing else. Getting an earful from a customer (or reader in my case) is never a pleasant experience, because at the end of the day, it means you’ve made a mistake and now must fix it.

Yet Professor Jerry Osteryoung from the college of business at Florida State University noted recently that it is this very feedback that provides a true “golden opportunity,” if you will, to not only correct the error in question but make significant improvements.

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“Negative comments are the real nuggets since they give each entrepreneur new information about something that is not working in their business,” he explained. “Good and great comments from customers are wonderful to see but really do not add much new in information – but they are great to receive.”

Negative comments are golden opportunities that you cannot afford to ignore for two reasons, in Osteryoung’s view (seen here at right).

“First, they give you chance to correct a problem before it gets worse,” he said. “Second, these negative comments give you an opportunity to salvage the customer before they decide not to come back to your business. An upset customer that you can convert normally becomes a very strong supporter of your business.”

However, he stressed, in order to receive valid customer you must be listening to what customers are saying and what they are doing. One CEO of a bank, for example, purposely kept his office just to side of the bank’s main floor so he could see and hear what his customers were saying about his bank.

“By keeping the office close to the main floor, he was telling all of the bank’s customers that he cared about their opinions and wanted their input especially the negative comments,” Osteryoung pointed out.

Truckers, of course, don’t need to do this. Drivers will hear about it on the dock, while logistics and transportation managers lack little compunction in making scathing comments via e-mails, texts, or phone calls.

It’s a little grating when such feedback occurs because expectations are so high despite the dearth of a willingness to pay for it.

I talked with Noël Perry, principal of research firm Transport Fundamentals and senior consultant with FTR Associates, about this recently and he told me shippers consider trucking service “a failure” when their on-time delivery percentage is at 95% or less. Yet what truckers get for successfully achieving 95% on-time delivery or better these days is shrinking.

Consider this: according to investment firm Robert W. Baird & Co., TL and LTL rates have been in virtual free-fall for years. For TL carriers, they declined 2%, 1%, and 5% in 2007, 2008, and 2009 respectively, while for their LTL brethren, rates fell 1%, 2% and 10% over the same three-year stretch.

Still, though, truckers soldier on – and much as negative feedback is difficult to swallow, it’s better than the most troubling customer comment of all, noted Osteryoung: those that just leave and do not tell you what the problems are, but go on to tell so many friends, relatives, and peers about the failings they experienced.

“While these are comments are difficult to capture, they are the most valuable,” said Osteryoung. “The best way to get this information is to go out of your way to contact customers that have not come back recently or those that might not have renewed a contract with your business.”

He also noted that customer satisfaction surveys still remain a great way to solicit comments from those customers that would not directly tell you about problems they have incurred.

It’s not always pretty dealing with negative feedback, but as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” An axiom worth remembering when truckers must deal with it.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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