As sur­veys pro­lif­er­ate, their find­ings grow du­bi­ous

Sur­veys are pro­lif­er­at­ing, even as their find­ings be­come sus­pect “This idea of par­tic­i­pa­tory mar­ket­ing helps to en­gage peo­ple”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - Jen­nifer Ka­plan

Four­teen years ago, Bain ex­ec­u­tive Fred Re­ich­held had a sug­ges­tion he thought would be a win for busi­nesses: short con­sumer sur­veys to test brand loy­alty. The idea took off, and Bain says more than two-thirds of For­tune 1000 com­pa­nies now use the Net Pro­moter Sys­tem that Re­ich­held started. But the con­cept has mor­phed, and when its cre­ator en­tered a hotel lobby and saw a sign that read, “If there’s any rea­son you can’t give us a 10, stop by the front desk. We’ll make it worth your while,” he came face-to-face with the mon­ster he un­wit­tingly helped spawn.

That hotel is no out­lier. An All­state in­sur­ance agency in Westch­ester, N.Y., sends cus­tomers fre­quent notes push­ing them to give it a flaw­less score on an e-mailed sur­vey so it can re­ceive “ad­di­tional re­sources” to give cus­tomers bet­ter ser­vice. Some re­tail­ers of­fer sweep­stakes en­tries for com­plet­ing sur­veys. Trump Univer­sity stu­dents who have sued over false prom­ises tes­ti­fied they were pres­sured to give high marks to pro­fes­sors. And fre­quent users of Uber’s rideshar­ing ser­vice are fa­mil­iar with the not-so-gen­tle de­mand from driv­ers for five stars out of five.

The ex­plo­sive growth in in­stant cus­tomer

sur­veys arises from a con­flu­ence of forces, say schol­ars: the grow­ing thirst for client feed­back to im­prove prod­ucts and ser­vices; the in­creas­ing fo­cus on data; the ease of reach­ing cus­tomers via e-mail and text; and the grow­ing con­vic­tion that by rat­ing a prod­uct, cus­tomers gain a stake in it and be­come mem­bers of that prod­uct’s “com­mu­nity.”

“There was a time in mar­ket­ing where the con­sumer was on the side­lines,” says Vann Graves, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of FL+G, an ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing com­pany. “Now this idea of par­tic­i­pa­tory mar­ket­ing helps to en­gage peo­ple. It’s like, ‘I’m af­fect­ing the brand by par­tic­i­pat­ing.’ ” But the tsunami of sur­veys is mak­ing them far less use­ful, Graves says. “It works for a lot of ser­vice-ori­ented things,” he says, “but I’m not go­ing to rate my toi­let pa­per on­line.”

Con­text is im­por­tant. TripAd­vi­sor doesn’t face sur­vey fa­tigue, says Brian Payea, the travel review ser­vice’s head of in­dus­try re­la­tions, be­cause peo­ple want oth­ers to learn of their travel ex­pe­ri­ences. “It’s the thing you want to share, whereas the fer­til­izer I bought and the deck paint I bought that I got re­quests to review, it’s like, ‘Hmm, not that pas­sion­ate about it,’” he says.

For Michelle Henry, co-founder and pres­i­dent of the Cen­ter for Mar­ket­ing & Opinion Re­search in Akron, the so­lu­tion to con­sumer turnoff is con­duct­ing sur­veys only once or twice a year aimed specif­i­cally at im­prov­ing prod­ucts. The wrong way is ty­ing sur­veys to pay or ben­e­fits and hav­ing the af­fected em­ploy­ees give them, she says, such as at restau­rants whose wait­ers ask cus­tomers to fill out a sur­vey and put in a good word for them.

Re­ich­held says bloated rat­ings de­feat a sur­vey’s pur­pose. Coach­ing re­sponses can drive up scores, but higher scores in­di­cate noth­ing about whether the cus­tomer will re­turn or rec­om­mend a prod­uct. “The in­stant we have a tech­nol­ogy to min­i­mize sur­veys,” he says, “I’m the first one on that band­wagon.”

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