Customer surveys that tell you what you want to hear

Are your customers really satisfied, or are your feedback surveys merely generating hallucinations?

Soliciting candid, objective feedback from customers is an art form.  Be it with written surveys or live interviews, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of using biased or leading questions to elicit a desired response (in this case, that your customers are satisfied with your business).

I was reminded of this earlier in the week when a survey company for a major automobile manufacturer contacted me about my recent service experience at the local dealership.  I was actually pleased to get the call, because although the experience satisfied my basic requirements (the cost estimate was accurate, the car was ready when promised, etc.), I was a bit turned off by one aspect of the interaction.

A few days earlier, I had received a coupon in the mail for 30% off any service cost.  The small print said the discount was only available to first-time customers.  I decided to present the coupon to the dealer, as my service bill was going to be pretty large and I was hoping they’d agree to be just as good to long-time customers like me as they were offering to be to first-timers.  In the end, they said they couldn’t accept the coupon but agreed to give me a more modest discount instead.

So I was itching to tell this story to the survey company.  But I never got the chance.  Here’s what they asked me:

Surveyor:  “Overall, how were you satisfied with your service experience at the local dealer?”

I paused for a while and then responded “yes.”

Surveyor:  “What was it about the experience that satisfied you?”

I mentioned the accuracy of the cost estimate and the delivery of the car back to me on time.

Surveyor:  “Thank you for your feedback.  We appreciate your business.”  Click.

Forget that the surveyor never even dared to ask me if there was anything about the experience that disappointed me.  Forget that he was looking for a Yes or No answer to the satisfaction question — offering no chance to rate the experience on a graded scale and elicit a more nuanced assessment.

I was amazed that, even when there was a very pregnant pause after he asked me about my overall satisfaction, he didn’t probe to inquire why I was hesitating.  He didn’t dare go there.

This is a perfect example of a company structuring its feedback mechanism so that it is transactional, black and white, and biased.  It was merely a box that needed to be checked off on some executive’s objectives — yes, we surveyed x% of our customers.  It was as far as you could possibly get from a genuine effort to gauge customer satisfaction and ascertain what could be done differently to improve the customer experience.

And the saddest thing is, some poor soul up at headquarters is looking at my survey results and thinking that the company did good by me.  Those are the kinds of hallucinations that biased surveys can create — and the executives in charge don’t recognize the more sobering reality until it’s too late.

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