The Sample Size of One: How to Listen to Individual Customers

Listen to me.


Today’s customers are more empowered than ever—and they’re shaping the success or failure of companies everywhere.

With social media and smartphones in nearly everyone’s hands, all it takes is one customer, one complaint, one good or bad experience to influence a company’s reputation. The voice of one individual has the power to sway millions.

Look at the scandal that hit United Airlines in 2009 when one unhappy customer, whose guitar was broken in transit, took his frustrations to YouTube. His song, “United Breaks Guitars” has now been viewed almost 13 million times. That’s a lot of negative impressions spawned by a single experience. United is not alone. Twitter is littered with the comments of frustrated customers from every industry.


That’s why it is so important for companies to focus on the individual: the sample size of one. Companies should no longer be asking, “What are customers saying about us?” but rather, “What did John say about his experience?” “Did we answer Jane’s questions to her satisfaction?” Companies have to seek out individual feedback and do more than just listen; they have to use it to drive proactive decision-making throughout the organization.

It starts with honesty. When customers show up at your store to ask a question, don’t talk from a script. Be genuine. Ask questions of your own and admit mistakes when they are made. With online customers, offer candid responses, do your best to help, and hold back that overly defensive gut response when someone types out a temper tantrum on Facebook or Twitter. Customers come back for the right price or the right product, but they stay loyal to the companies who care—and increasingly disloyal to those who don’t. Harris Interactive released a study in 2011 showing that 85 percent of customers call it quits with a company after one bad experience.


Companies also have to concentrate on taking care of their own. Frontline employees need the right tools to support positive customer experiences. That could mean tablets for your sales department so they can close a lead or follow up with clients more quickly. Or, it could mean paper notebooks for a restaurant training its new wait staff. Putting the right tools in employees’ hands will translate into individual customer experiences that matter.

Get the most from your frontline employees by conveying the right message. If a boss walks into a store with no mind for the customer, that disinterest permeates down through the ranks. Motivate your employees with a mission they can get behind. Show them the importance of satisfying each customer. This doesn’t mean talking about the sales bump they might see. It means talking about the value behind the product and its delivery.

For a coffee shop, maybe that’s getting a rushed customer in and out and off to work within a minute. For a bank, that could be helping a local business make payroll by staying open until 6. Make your product benefits real, not simply a list of things that look good on paper. Employees who see the value in customer satisfaction will make the effort to retain and support customers at the individual level.

And remember, your employees will only understand the value of customer satisfaction if they can confirm it through the comments of individual customers and the examples of managers and executives.

I’m currently away taking a few days off 🙂 Bryan Phelps from Mindshare Technologies – an enterprise feedback and customer experience management software company – kindly offered to write a guest post for me. You can check out their blog here and follow them on Twitter @MindshareVoice.

Photo Credit: via Compfight cc

5 comments On The Sample Size of One: How to Listen to Individual Customers

  • Hello Bryan
    Every time I read or talk with someone from Mindshare, I am struck by the fact that you guys get it. I say you really get it. You get what constitutes the heart of a customer orientation. A customer orientation that build genuine relationships, genuine emotional affinity. A customer orientation that recognises that frontline employees are human beings doing a challenging job. And they need consideration, they need support, they need the freedom or respond.

    I wish you well.


    • Thanks for your comment, Maz, and I am really pleased that you enjoyed the post from Mindshare. I’ve also asked Bryan to respond directly.

      All the best,


    • Maz – thank you for the kind words. I love your comments. It’s very fascinating to me that many front line employees want to provide good experiences but don’t have the tools or the full circle feedback to know how they are doing.

      Thanks again!

  • I like this. You seem to understand how customers think, and its a pretty simple thing: respect and value what they mean to your business. So often, the concept of customer service gets swept under the rug or given lip service. Every business owner, especially small business owners, should reads this. Good post.

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