How to Overcome Customer Feedback Defensiveness in the Executive Suite

How to Overcome Customer Feedback Defensiveness in the Executive Suite

Picture of Adam Ramshaw
Adam Ramshaw
Adam Ramshaw has been helping companies to improve their Net Promoter® and Customer Feedback systems for more than 15 years. He is on a mission to stamp out ineffective processes and bad surveys.
Download the Customer Feedback whitepaper

Almost everyone who has presented negative customer feedback to a senior management audience has lived this scenario.

The presentation starts well, everyone’s happy while you go through the numbers, lots of nodding heads, serious looks and agreement. That is until the very specific section by section scores or negative verbatim customer comments are presented; then the wall comes up, and the excuses rain down:

  1. “That’s not really a problem…”
  2. “The score can’t be that low…”
  3. “That’s too [big/complex/not under our control/ etc], we can ‘t do anything about that.”
  4. “That customer doesn’t really understand how things are…”

You can sum all of these responses up as the 4D’s:

Defend, Defer, Deflect and Deny.

Thanks to Stephanie Thum  for that great catch cry.

The problem is that while senior management are leaning on the 4Ds, they are not owning the feedback and until they own the feedback, change will be nearly impossible to implement. So you have to overcome that defensiveness if you are to proceed.

The next time you are up against the 4Ds try one, or all, of these approaches:

 CEO leadership

CEO or other senior executive operational leadership (COO, Business Manager, etc) support is crucial for customer feedback success. If the CEO takes the feedback seriously then you can bet that all of their reports will as well.

On the other hand if the CEO is leader of the 4D band, getting everyone else on board will be tough. If you have a 4D band leader on your hands, you need to start there.

The dynamics of every organisation are different so it is difficult to generalise but one approach is to challenge them on their beliefs. Call them out on the 4Ds and see if you can change their view point.

Generally this is better done one on one rather than in a group meeting.

Another tack is to try changing their lens on the situation from

“customers don’t know anything”


“customers are trying to help us to improve and serve them better”.

Peter Symonds has a great piece of insight from one of his clients:

The sin is not to get bad scores first time round, it is to ignore them and not get the scores up next time round!

This type of thinking changes how people view the feedback and process in the first place.

Bill Thomas also suggests

Explain that you can’t fight the enemy you don’t see. Even though they might not like or agree with the customer’s feedback, it’s better that they know about it so they can deal with it. Far worse is the customer who has a negative (or inaccurate) view that they never tell us about. So the customer who offers critical feedback, is actually giving us an opportunity that many other customers aren’t.

Whatever you do in this situation keep the dialog going.

Give Executives A First Hand Customer Experience

It’s easy to disagree with the customer comments from the rarefied atmosphere of the executive suite so change it up. Get your executives  right up close and personal with what your customers go through on a daily basis.

There are at least two ways to do this:

Put them on the phones or in the physical outlet

It’s not always possible for reasons of training, compliance and good customer experience to make exexutives the actual front line service proviers. Instead, have them “jack-in” to live calls in your contact centre or shadow a branch employee for a few hours.

This can be easy to implement and very effective.

Another approach for if you are a software company is have senior executives look in on user testing so that they can get a deep understanding of just what customers find difficult to use in your product.

Think about how you can get your executives right into the heart of the customer experience.

Have them mystery shop the process

If possible have management go out and actually become a customer of your company. This can make the issues customers face very real.

Just make sure that the manager uses the services as a normal customer not as COO or VP Operations as that will, obviously, skew their experience.

Also make sure that they interact personally. We had one senior bank executive state that there were no issues with their products and services and he used the bank exclusively. Only later did we discover that his PA was the one actually managing his accounts. She told a very different story.

Create a Can Do approach

In overcoming the inertia that you face, unfreezing is the hardest step. Making any change, almost no matter how small will get you moving. Staying moving is then much easier.

So start small and make changes in response to individual pieces of feedback. Then build on that success to gain momentum to drive bigger and bigger changes.

One approach we often recommend is to run a simple 5 Whys process on, say, five pieces of negative customer feedback each week.

The 5 Whys process can be done quickly and in an existing customer service or feedback meeting.  Make sure that you look for simple things that can be implemented right now. Keep the pace moving.

Alternatively you can start with a communications piece that is not a change to the business at all but simply education of your customers in how your product or services work.

We often see comments from dissatisfied customers that indicate the product is working exactly as designed but they don’t understand why it works that way. Perhaps that particular person does not see the big picture or has not had the correct training or perhaps your training needs to be modified.

Simple communication or changing some small way customers interact with the service can solve those problems and be a baby step along the way to success.

Make sure the data is beyond reproach

If management, or staff, have any question regarding the integrity of the data overcoming the 4Ds will become even harder. Deflect and Deny will take over.

To that end ensure that you data collection and reporting are 100% understood by everyone and that inconsistencies do not occur between different parts of your process. 

Percent charts that don’t add up to 100%, different cuts of the same data that do not appear to be internally consistent, etc, all cast doubt on the data.

Once there is doubt about one small piece of data everything, especially anything negative becomes suspect in management’s eyes. It is the data that’s wrong not them. Focus on getting this right and you will have a better chance for success.

These are four approaches that I have seen generate a good success in overcoming management defensiveness.

I've created a step by step guide to implementing an Effective Customer  Feedback process: Download it Here