Surveys Rate as a Low Point on the Customer Journey

“Are you completely satisfied with your buying experience?” asked Brad, my Honda salesman.

I smiled and nodded. I was genuinely—not, deeply—satisfied with every aspect of the typically unpleasant new car buying process. It was easy and quick. I avoided spending one minute more than absolutely necessary inside the dealership. Brad negotiated fairly and quickly and even agreed, upon my request, to do so via email. Brad abbreviated the requisite upselling (for financing and warranties I didn’t want).

And then my smile froze as Brad launched into an all-too-familiar follow-up.

“Great to hear, Eric. Just so you know, when you get the survey, it figures pretty heavily into our performance reviews. And, 10s—the highest ratings possible—well, [the company] considers that score average for us.”

Ugh. I’m getting extremely touchy about customer satisfaction surveys. And I’m not alone.

Consultant Francis Gouillart recounts his visit to an upscale Paris hotel where he met with clients and conducted seminars. The experience was great: The staff greeted him by name and helped him transform his room into an improvised client-meeting office.

He had one quibble: The Internet connection, which roughly costs an extra U.S. $ 27.50 per day, booted him offline far too often (and required a lengthy re-registration process after each disconnection). When a guest-experience survey arrived in his email the morning of his departure, Gouillart was poised to compliment the staff and vent about the spotty Internet connection, a real drag for a business guest. Only he couldn’t, because the survey didn’t contain a question about the Internet connection (or price). The survey was designed in an inside-out manner to give the hotel the specific feedback it sought, rather than enabling guests to share candid feedback about their actual experience. Gouillart writes in his blog:

“It wants to know whether I think of this hotel more as ‘pleasant with some originality,’ or ‘classic with a twist.’ It wants to know whether I have enjoyed the two bathrobes and the slipper they have made available for me. Or whether the Nespresso coffee machine does anything for me. I don’t give a hoot. I want to talk about the Internet….At the end, there is a box where I can write whatever I want. I know the market researcher is already half-checked out. I still spill my guts. Just in case. The box is too small to contain my ire. The tyranny of quantitative market research has won once again. They will never know why I have woven this complex pattern of a final evaluation where I hate the hotel, yet love the people in it and most of its amenities. They will probably run regression models between my overall low grade and my favorable answers to most questions, and shake their head.”

MacBeth Williams Principal Peter MacBeth expresses a similar sentiment in his November 2013 Harvard Business Review (HBR) letter responding to a thoughtful September HBR article examining marketing’s need to shift from a customer touchpoint to a customer journey orientation: “If customer service organizations weren’t so focused on wrangling a good customer satisfaction score out of every opportunity and were genuinely interested in how their service is perceived, that might make a difference, as well.”

Exactly! As deeply as I appreciated Brad’s service, enlisting me in gaming the satisfaction measurement system leaves me feeling more wrangled than delighted. The company’s drive for quantitative information about customer experience diminishes the quality of this customer’s experience. But I feel a personal connection to Brad. Rather than launching into a Larry-David-esque critique of a flawed system on the spot, I resolve to do him a solid.   

When the Honda online survey arrives a few weeks after my vehicle purchase, I Usain-Bolt through the form’s (way too) numerous questions. I dutifully tick off the highest score possible in every response. Of course, I’m not responding in a meaningful way about my actual experience; instead, I’m sprinting to fulfill my end of a bargain.

Plus, I’m getting more and more annoyed about the time—my time—the survey is consuming to extract my quantitative data. No wonder some experts, including Noreena Hertz of the Centre for the Study of Decision-Making at University College London, argue that companies should pay customers for their data. “Companies need to…think about how best to reward their customers for the use of their data,” Hertz writes in The Wall Street Journal. “Because it’s not necessarily the case that a better product offering will on its own suffice.”

When the Honda survey asks if I visited another Honda dealer during my shopping, I lie and check “no.” Selecting “yes,” I’m betting, would have delivered me to another set of questions—where I could have expressed honest criticism about my experience at a rival dealership (whose “no-haggle” price promise quickly felt misleading).

After what seems like the 12th screen of survey questions pops up, my inner Larry David cuts loose when I reach the qualitative freedom of the comments box.

Like Gouillart, I spill my guts. And like Gouillart, I know all too well that my beloved automotive brand will never know the complexities of how I feel—and how they could make me, and many other customers, feel even better.

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