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Case Study: The Secretly Disappointed
The one where funerals meet feedback surveys
What happens when funerals meet feedback surveys? A fascinating lesson in leadership, it turns out.
A few years ago, Richard Gomersall was asked to take over as Managing Director of the Co-Op Funeralcare business (quite a change from farming, where he’d spent the previous part of his career).
At first glance, they were brilliant with their customers. A customer satisfaction score of 98% was the pride and joy of the team.
There was just one problem, though. It wasn’t true.
Or, at least, it couldn’t be true. Sure, the scores were accurate, and there was no suggestion of any foul play. But in his first few months in the job, Richard had been immersing himself in the company and, whilst the service was undoubtedly good, it wasn’t 98% good.
The data just didn’t tally with what he was seeing with his own eyes, but there was no obvious answer as to the cause of the disconnect.
Later that year, Richard’s team held focus groups of recent customers for research on a different topic. Amongst lots of general feedback, the same interesting reply kept being heard:
‘If I’d have known, I would have done that…’
Remembering the mystery, Richard asked his team to go back through the original survey questions with these customers. How satisfied they were with the funeral now, after a few months had gone by?
That 98%? It dropped, significantly, to the mid-60s. The Secretly Disappointed.
As any of you who have organised a funeral know, the days afterwards are ones of emotional exhaustion. So, if you’re asked then how the service was, it will often be ‘It was a lovely service, it’s what they would have wanted, I’m so relieved it went well’. If you send a survey then, you’re going to get a fairly binary response: yes, great, thank you, or no, it was a disaster. And luckily, very few people have funeral disasters.
But asking people a few months later revealed a different, more nuanced view. In the time in between, people had started realising other options, little touches, things they could have done differently but weren’t in the best mental state to think of at the time. Perhaps they could have taken a route past the deceased’s favourite football stadium, had some doves released, or chosen more individual music rather than the usual tunes.
It was this that was accounting for the difference between the data, and what Richard’s team were seeing with their own eyes. And so they set to work.
As well as a new process for dealing with things going wrong – because if a third of the 98% weren’t really that happy, then for the 2% it must have been really bad – Richard’s team redesigned the whole approach to making choices about the funeral.
This included a new booklet that acted more like a menu, showing people all the different options at-a-glance. It included a checklist for colleagues to use, prompting people on things they might not think about. And it included new training for the arrangers to spot clues in what their customers were saying – say, if they mentioned a particular location, or band, or food – in case they could make a suggestion to make the day a little more special.
They also added a follow-up survey, to keep track of their improvement. Pretty quickly, the ‘follow-up’ score had shifted from mid-60s to late-70s. And, as well as being better for the customer, it was better for the business, too. With more options on display, people tended to spend a little more on a few interesting extras, increasing commercial revenue.
There are a lot of possible lessons from this story: The timing of surveys; the role of the ‘curse of knowledge’ and presuming your customers know what you do; the importance of making unobvious connections between insight.
But more than anything, I think this is a story about leadership, the importance of leaders immersing in their customers’ experience - not just accepting the data presented to them - and being prepared to challenge the prevailing view.
Jon Roberts of AO.com calls this ‘Walkabout Management’:
At one time or another, I’ve done every job in the business, through necessity or wanting to understand it. I go and ask people in the business ‘what do you do every day that we ask you to do that’s stupid?’
If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. It’s appealing to opt for the easy life and go with the prevailing view. But as Richard showed, challenging convention can make a big difference to customers, and push the business to another level, too.