Friday, February 05, 2010

The customer satisfaction prison: When one becomes a five

I am not a number: I am a free man!
-The Prisoner

Back in the late 60's, British Television aired a series called The Prisoner. In it, a British Intelligence officer abruptly resigns, and finds himself kidnapped and held prisoner in an isolated, seaside location where he is known only as...Number 6.

He finds himself amongst hundreds of other nameless but numbered individuals living tranquilly in a surreal Orwellian resort village. The perpetually sunny space is outfitted with the dark shadows of surveillance, hypnosis, and mind control schemes, administered by a series of nameless Number 2's who want to know, on behalf of an unseen Number 1, but one thing: Why did he resign?

I bring this up as a loose link to a new number 1 in the quest to quantify customer satisfaction: Number 5.

Number 5 being the number expected when asked to rate our satisfaction with whatever customer experience we've had. It goes something generically like this:

'Hi, On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being completely satisfied, how would you rate the service you just received?'

The Likert-ization of customers serves a valuable data capture and analysis purpose. I've worked with clients using five-point thinking to:

  • identify directional trends in collective pools of product feature and attribute feedback; 
  • gather a point of objective reference in a world of subjective customer service nuance; 
  • and occasionally, to provide actionable insight on pricing, promotion or positioning.

But, like the seemingly tranquil village in The Prisoner, a look below the surface of 5-point customer satisfaction surveys sometimes reveals a dark undercurrent: when the Number 5 becomes an end unto itself, we risk transforming people into numbers.

Turning constructive feedback into an unsatisfying feedback experience

Here's a story. I recently had my car serviced. I was handed a two-page survey to complete when I left. I set it the recycling pile.

Five days later the phone rang and, soon regretting my decision to answer the Toll Free number, I spent 5 minutes answering ten questions from a polite corporate representative about my local dealer service experience.

In the course of asking me 10 questions, I rated one area a 4, rather than a 5. I also mentioned that my service rep was helpful and professional. End of story. I had provided honest feedback on my mostly excellent experience. Or so I thought.

A day later, I got a call from my local dealer service rep. He seemed a bit nervous. My 'not 5' rating on 1 of the 10 questions the day before had already made it back to him. He implied that he needed 5's, even though the 4 I provided was in an area beyond his direct responsibility (scheduling).

It was very personal to him: Because, as I found out, his job performance was evaluated based on whether his customers all give all 5's.

He mentioned that the same corporate entity that called me, would be sending me a more detailed survey via the email address on file and hoped that if there was anything he could do to get all 5's he sure hoped I would tell him.

I spent 5 minutes on the phone telling him what I told the corporate surveyor. When I got the email survey it said it would take about 10-15 minutes to complete. Right.

So what?

The story I relay above is meant to illustrate, in real terms, how good intentions in seeking completely satisfied customers sometimes go awry. To borrow a phrase, let me be clear: I believe in research and I believe in customer survey data. The modern world is built, afterall, on that which can be quantified. But it's also built by that which, perhaps, ought not be quantified quite so easily.

Quantifying one's perceptions, for instance, doesn't magically make them anyone else's.

As marketers, we understand that a good customer experience can be undone pretty easily and a bad one can be hard to overcome. So why let the otherwise useful act of satisfaction surveys be a risk to the very satisfaction they survey?

Four principles for putting quality in the quantity

Here are four general principles--derived from being both purveyors and party to hundreds of customer survey initiatives--that I believe will help create a good feedback experience:

1. Align time + value: Ensure that the time requirement you ask of the customer is only a small fraction of the time invested in the actual experience being surveyed. In other words, a survey on a 2-minute transaction should probably take far less than 2 minutes. Likewise, align what you invest in measurement with the value of the customer.

2. Identify what's being evaluated: If you are asking about an overall experience, state that and mean it...and be comfortable with the limits of generalized conclusions. If you are asking about a specific aspect of the experience, then clearly state that. Knowing what you are asking requires a clear understanding of your satisfaction survey objectives. In other words, why ask? Broad based questions seldom result in specific feedback. Using general responses to draw specific conclusions is risky. Likewise, using specific feedback to draw generalizable satisfaction conclusions can easily eliminate any relationship between effect and cause.

3. Use data first to learn, then to confirm: Learning often comes from failure. If the point of a customer satisfaction survey is to confirm what you already believe or hope is true, save everyone their time and let it be true because the organization believes it is. If the point is to learn, then something that is not a '5' should be embraced as an opportunity to do good.

4. Keep it personal: Behind the numbers are real people...customers and associates...who defy descriptions in 5 shades of gray. Incorporating some facility for open-ended response helps keep people present in the analysis.  

Customer satisfaction surveys need not create a prison of numbers. Applying a few reasonable considerations helps ensure that people are Number 1 in the customer satisfaction show.

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