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”
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.”