Thursday, April 08, 2010

Building a Better Suggestion Box

Does your institution have a comment book or suggestion box in the lobby where visitors can leave their feedback on their experiences? Do you get scintillating insights and stories from people through these mechanisms? Probably not.

In my experience, lobby feedback systems generate three kinds of responses:
  • Effusive, generic platitudes: "Great Museum!" "Nice art!"
  • Wedding registry-style signatures: "Dina and Arthur Feldman, Lincoln, Nebraska"
  • Specific complaints: "The bathrooms were dirty." "Better food in the cafeteria, please."
Each of these kinds of responses has value--but the value is limited. The positive comments induce warm fuzzies, and the registries let you know where people come from (though zip code requests do that more consistently).

As for the complaints, the common lack of feedback--when visitors are not told whether or how their complaints will be addressed--minimizes their impact on the visitor experience and likely reduces their incidence. A survey of a survey of UK health patients who used the National Health Services complaints system found that people don't want money or revenge when something bad happens--they just want to know that they are being taken seriously and that changes will be made to ensure won't happen again. An unresponsive system can't do that. The same survey found that 20% of complainers found the process "pointless" and almost a further 30% had found it "totally pointless." These are likely people who will take their complaints elsewhere (or leave them unresolved) in the future.

Even when the comments are good, museum staff processes are rarely set up to learn from them and adapt programming accordingly. I've worked at several museums where we gave educational program attendees surveys to fill out at the end of a workshop or lecture. We dutifully tallied their responses, but only for the internal bragging rights to the board that "92% of this year's participants rated our programs as 'very good' or 'excellent.'" We explained away the occasional complaints. The surveys were not a learning tool; they were a reporting tool.

Building a better feedback mechanism for all comments--good and bad--requires two things:
  1. Staff who are eager to learn from visitors (and have processes in place to support change).
  2. Designed systems in which visitors can see where their comments go and how they have impact.
Here are two examples, one big, one small.

Patient Opinion

In the UK, an independent non-profit website, Patient Opinion, has developed a public way for patients to share stories about their health care and for hospitals and the National Health Service to respond. People share both positive and negative experiences (and in many cases, a story will feature a mixture of comments, thanks, suggestions, and concerns), and NHS representatives frequently respond directly. The public nature of the discourse helps subsequent users feel that the system is working and is worthwhile.

Does it matter that Patient Opinion is independent from the NHS? As a public strategy blogger notes, Amazon and other online services maintain their own high-functioning feedback systems. But if people think the NHS feedback system is broken, going outside can help. People see Patient Opinion as serving a different purpose than the NHS complaint system--more about civic dialogue and improvement than sparking a punitive outcome. The Patient Opinion blog noted:
Sometimes a hospital will contact us about a critical posting on our site. "Can you remove it?" they say, "and ask the patient to make a complaint instead?" We don't remove it (of course), but we will email the patient in confidence to ask if they would like to make a complaint. And in every case to date, the patient has replied: "No, I don't want to make a complaint. I'm not trying to get anyone into trouble. I just want the problem fixed so it doesn't happen to anyone else."
Could you reframe your feedback system to invite visitors to tell you a story about the experience they had while onsite? I could imagine very successful "museum opinion" or "museum stories" websites in which visitors reflect on their experiences and connect with staff about their favorite bits and frustrations. Perhaps instead of sending people an e-newsletter if they give you their email address, you should start by asking for their story.

Staff of Life

For a much smaller, no-tech example, consider my grocery store, Staff of Life. This local store has a simple comment box at the front where patrons can submit requests for everything from shredded coconut to more handicapped parking. This is a standard suggestion box with a twist--staff members write responses directly onto the comments and post them on a board, so everyone can see both the request and its response. The fact that every comment receives a response sets a precedent that the board is a place for a conversation between staff and users, not a black hole for users' suggestions.

When I first saw this board, I wondered: could a museum swap out its lobby suggestion box for a board like this? Do museum visitors really have comments as specific as "please stock large nutritional yeast flakes?"

Talking to front-line staff members reveals that yes, visitors have lots of things they want to say and discuss--whether in a rant, a series of questions, or extended reverie. I've talked to many admissions desk staff members who constantly hear from visitors about their favorites and their grievances. For the most part, if staff members offer those same visitors comment cards, the visitors shrug it off. They wanted a conversation, not a one-way communication device.

The problem with the current state of things is that those comments rarely gets to the people who can actually use them. If a visitor feels that an exhibit label needs to be changed, or is frustrated by the lack of seating, the front desk staff can only go so far to get that communicated up to the curator or facilities manager in question. And by spending their time not quite satisfying visitors' desires to talk about their experiences, front-line staff can get pulled away from the work that their managers care about.

That's what's brilliant about the grocery store comment board at Staff of Life. It allows a conversation between patrons and high-level staff members. When I'm shopping, the staff members with whom I interact are stockers, checkers, and baggers. These are not the people who can order a new product or make decisions about the width of the aisles. The comment board sends visitors' comments to the staff members who can use them to improve the store. And by responding to the comments publicly, those high-level staff members demonstrate their commitment to responsiveness and visitors' needs.

Of course, people visit grocery stores much more frequently than they do museums. An asynchronous paper-based response mechanism might need to be supplemented by something online to help visitors see the responses to their own queries. But the simple presence of an open, public dialogue between visitors and staff changes the dynamic of the store for everyone. Whether I make a comment or not, I know that my grocery store is listening to me and people like me, and that we are trying together to make it a better place.

Isn't that the way you want visitors to feel about your institution?

8 comments, add yours!:

Jennifer Caleshu, Bay Area Discovery Museum said...

At the Bay Area Discovery Museum, we changed our comment cards last year to try to mitigate some of the "black hole" feeling. Now, the cards include a request to leave their name/contact info if they'd like a response. The cards also include a note that we review cards weekly, and include my contact info if they want to reach me directly (Dir. Communications). I then call or email every single comment that includes contact info. I've had some really great conversations with visitors as a result - positive and negative comments alike.

Once our Dir. Exhibitions is back from maternity leave, we have plans to adjust the comment card displays in every hall so they aren't just the cards and a drop box - so they function more like your grocery store, where we put up answers to FAQs, and responses to cards.

Philippa said...

We have a box to check on our feedback cards which asks 'would you like a response to your comment?'

We find completed cards fall into three catagories:

- a comment, sometimes praise but slightly more often critical where they would rather remain anoymous. These tend to be fairly vague so not always super useful to act on. But hopefully they made the commenter feel better.

- a specific comment, almost always critical, requesting a response. We commit on a nice sign to resolving these within 20 days. These are always useful, a bit like constant mystery shopper visits. The secret is never ever to get defensive about the problem. Obviously some problems aren't resolveable in 20 days but the complaint itself can usually be done so (eg resolving a complaint that we don't show enough contemporary art by explaining our exhibition policy and process and signposting other complementary venues rather than by ripping down the displays!)

- people who really enjoyed their visit and don't want to comment (or don't want a response to a positive comment) but want to join our mailing list. So the feedback card incorporates this too.

Interesting idea to put them out on public display. Trouble is I think that would put off some of those specific critical commenters (maybe that's just the UK where we like to grumble to our companions but hate to complain publicly), and those are the really useful ones from a management point of view.

Megan Fischer, Providence Children's Museum said...

We encourage our admissions desk and other frontline staff to record and share any important comments that visitors don't want to write down and collect comment card-style visitor surveys on a sample of days. I share comments that stand out - positive or negative - with relevant staff right away. Maybe it's letting our exhibit designer know about a broken component, our visitor services manager know about a wonderful comment about a particular staff person. Then I share ALL comments a few times a year, grouped by categories, with our education and visitor services staff. The next thing I want to do: periodic blog posts that list both positive and critical comments, with responses from various staff. I think it'll be easier to use the web to respond than a place in our building and it's my hope that it'll encourage additional comments electronically, via our blog and other social media, and give a greater sense of transparency and connectedness to our staff.

Nina Simon said...

I'm not surprised that children's museums are high on the list of institutions that are really acting on their comment cards. My guess is that comments from "facilitators" (parents, caregivers) are more likely to be about things related to safety, cleanliness, and quality of family experience than content - is that what you have found, Jennifer and Megan?

When I talk to front-line staff at history museums, it appears that they get lots of (verbal) comments in which people recount personal stories from the past or take issue with exhibition content--stories and comments that may not be making it onto cards. I think parents (and people in general) more naturally and automatically comment on issues of safety and health than affective experiences - things they may not think belong on a feedback card at all.

Jason Herrington said...

At the Nordic Heritage Museum we have six (six!) different guest books/visitor logs which usually get filled with names, addresses and minor comments. Our front-line staff is great at collecting detailed comments and concerns which get passed on to the staff to address. When I work the front line (which isn't very often these days, unfortunately) I find that visitors are really interested in looking through the visitor log to see where other visitors are from. We get a lot of folks visiting from Copenhagen, Bergen, Stockholm, or even more exotic locales and both local and international visitors like to see how wide our audience is. It also often sparks conversation between groups of visitors or with our volunteers.

Jessica Turgeon, Minnesota Children's Museum said...

At Minnesota Children's Museum we have four official comment card boxes, and then a stack of cards at the box office. We have a specific process we follow where every single comment card that has contact information is responded to no more than two weeks after it has been left (usually within a week). We have a management team that looks at the comments every two weeks and takes action on anything we feel needs to be addressed.

Our comments fall into similar categories to what Philippa said-general "this was great", a specific complaint, or a question/suggestion ("where do you get the...").

What we find really challenging is that the number of comments we get is continuously decreasing, despite the fact that we are rigorous about responding, so we are trying to find ways to keep up the dialog with our visitors.

sansdaddo said...


When I read this post, all I could think of was setting up a Peanuts style booth with Lucy sitting in it in the lobby of PMA in Philly that says: Comments $1, Complaints Free.

But how bout the old fashion human model? Create a volunteer position for Complaint Registrar. A simple desk with a human who will listen and try to respond or follow up with the visitor who has a complaint or a suggestion. It could be fun and whimsical (like the Peanuts booth) or serious and professional (like many other things at "serious" museums), but I bet either way, it could be very very effective.

While we are at it, how bout if we train security to engage visitors in a dialogue about their experience? These usually stoic,frontline workers could provide a direct line to customer concerns and engagement could create good will

Thomas Scurto-Davis

Rupa Patel said...

Patient Opinion is a laudable concept, but I'm sure it will be met with resistance from the providers of healthcare. Reputation is everything in healthcare, even if the reasons for having a good reputation are not transparent. (Oft-repeated is the fact that the food in a hospital most influences the patients' level of satisfaction with the care.)

Slightly tangential, but you may find this of interest: Founder Paul Hodgkin is driving this social enterprise, country by country, starting with the UK. From what I understand of the business model, the incentives in the UK vary from Portugal, Spain, and Italy, other countries where there are potential individuals to spearhead the initiative in other countries. I did meet the Paul at a conference in early April, and was impressed by his vision of why we need to involve the patient in healthcare reform, even if it is threatens doctors' autonomy.)