How Customer Satisfaction Surveys Yield Bogus Results

by Jeannie Walters

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Satisfaction surveys are important to capture customer feedback in a logical and objective way, right? That’s the idea, unless the survey is the result of an aggressive salesperson coaching the customer.

It most recently happened to me at a mobile phone store.

The young man who helped me was great, actually. For the sake of this story, let’s call him George. George helped me with my issue, was patient and kind and even threw in a little extra surprise at the end of our time together. He gave me a screen protector for no charge and put it on my phone for me, because, as he said “it’s tricky to do right.”

I was absolutely satisfied!

Then George spent a good five minutes explaining the concept of  a follow-up customer satisfaction survey to me. And why I should give him all 5’s on the 1 – 5 scale.

customer satisfaction surveys

I started to feel less satisfied.

I completed the survey on the touchscreen tablet, all while George continued to talk about the importance of receiving all 5’s and watched. I felt…icky. There was no way I could NOT give him a 5 without disappointing him.

But some questions were about things like my welcome at that store. (I didn’t get one.) I wouldn’t give a 5 in real life, but with this weird hovering guy (who I swear I liked 3 minutes ago!), I tapped the 5 button any way.

I knew the results were skewed, to say the least. I liked George. I had a good experience. But guess what I remember about that store visit now?

How do more typical customers feel about it?

It turns out I’m not the only one who feels less satisfied after being “coached” to complete a survey in a specific way.

Researchers Michael A. Jones and Valerie A. Taylor recently found people who imagined being asked for positive evaluations in retail settings reported a lower satisfaction score than those who imagined not being asked.  I can relate!

Inaccurate and inactionable data are other reasons to avoid the “Please give me a 5!” pleas.

As I tapped that high satisfaction score for my welcome at that store, I knew it was inaccurate. I knew it was going to perpetuate a myth within the walls of the organization that everything was great. Executives would nod their heads in satisfaction and think there was nothing to be done!

And I, the original Customer Experience Investigator™, was helping them perpetuate that myth! Oh the irony!

customer satisfaction surveys

Stop creating customer satisfaction myths.

The reason we’ve encountered what I call the “Give me a high score…or else!” phenomenon is because the salespeople and front-line reps have been coached to ask. They found that asking customers to give them higher scores results in…wait for it…higher scores! And higher scores sometimes mean more incentives for the front-line staff and management. Win/win for them.

But scores are just numbers and humans rely on feelings more than logic. Combine that with the book-end effect, where we remember the last encounter the most, and you can see the survey quickly becomes an inaccurate reflection of what the experience is really like.

I hope the research around this (numbers!) helps retail management realize it’s not worth it to coach front-line reps to beg for the higher satisfaction score. Let your people do what they do best, like my friend George, and the results will follow. And if the scores are too low, they point to exactly what needs to change. That’s what the goal should really be.

Image credits: MIKI Yoshihito (´・ω・)Sam Howzit via Creative Commons license

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Jeannie Walters

Jeannie Walters is the CEO/Founder of Experience Investigators, a global Customer Experience consulting firm. She has 20 years of experience helping companies improve loyalty and retention, employee engagement, and overall customer experience. Jeannie is a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP,) a charter member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA,) a Professional Member of the National Speakers Association, LinkedIn Learning instructor, TEDx speaker, and President-Elect of the National Speakers Association Illinois chapter. Learn more here.

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