It’s 10 years since the development of the net promoter score by Fred Reichheld, a partner at Bain. It’s been widely adopted. Your bonus may be partly dependent on achieving an NPS target. Its promoters say simplicity – boiling everything down to one number – helps people across the business engage with customer satisfaction. Detractors argue that this simplicity obscures the causes of satisfaction and, more importantly, dissatisfaction. Whatever the chosen method, customer satisfaction scores are often one of the measures most tracked and quoted in large service businesses.

So is it making a difference? Sadly, these scores are used to justify the status quo as much as to make the changes to benefit the customer, and hence the business. Targeting bonus on it may only make this worse. It takes courage to focus on what isn’t working well, and even more to draw attention to bad results, especially if it might cost money. Logic says that people will try to improve customer satisfaction scores if their bonus depends on it. That’s true – the only question is how. Human ingenuity is at its best when faced with the challenge of how to measure to get better results. NHS admissions were reduced by keeping people hanging around in A&E. Then, A&E waiting times were reduced by admitting patients. GCSE results, school league tables, even government borrowing targets – they all drove change, but not necessarily as intended.

Even with the best intentions, we tend to look for the good news not the bad. 85% of customers are very or quite satisfied – that’s great! The killjoy who pipes up with, “What about the other 15%?” just might not get an invite to the next presentation. People like that are a liability, aren’t they? It’s just not helpful.

Or is it? The real value in measuring people’s satisfaction is surely to identify where a business can become better: both better than it is now, and better than the alternatives that its customers could choose. That means discovering what you already do well and reinforcing it. It also means finding out what could be improved beyond the hygiene factors. This is not just about checking for anomalies or failures in your current system.

The bigger gain is listening to people’s fundamental frustrations and wishes. There lies opportunity to create competitive advantage for the business. Maybe the whole sector does things a certain way – and people routinely moan about it. Maybe it is that way for sound operational reasons, and so we learn to live with it. These are the classic ingredients for a disruptive competitor to come into the industry and change the rules. Incumbents end up having to respond, but are already disadvantaged, in time, cost and reputation. Accepting the status quo can be costly.

The issue here is not what measurement technique is used. It’s a very natural human instinct, to focus on the good, and to gloss over the bad. A change of measure may disrupt this for a time but as long as satisfaction is the focus, nothing much will change.

I propose a new measure. It’s this: that action taken from customer satisfaction measurement should be the measure, not the absolute cust sat score. This will drive people to look for things that are sub-optimal, and to listen to people who point them out. It will make a complaining tweeter a valuable source of information, not a loose cannon to be dealt with offline (though that will remain). In the worst cases, the “delay, deny, defend” culture would have to compete with the incentive to find things to improve.

Ah, but wouldn’t human ingenuity find things to change, just to drive the score up? Probably. So, to stop people making changes for the sake of it, the score can be linked to value for money -perhaps the number of improvements implemented per X spent on measurement, and per Y spent on implementation.

Boy, would that focus the mind. Suddenly, people would be interested in those little things, minor irritations, things that barely merit a mention when they come up in focus groups, or that don’t lend themselves to big internal projects or campaigns. Imagine the power in the combination of cheap listening – ask your service people, listen to sales people, visit distributors – and cheap implementation – looking for marginal gains not giant overhauls and triumphal relaunches. Meanwhile the big things that have long been accepted as how we do business would finally get some serious attention. I have great confidence in human ingenuity. It just has to be pointed in the right direction.


Previous posts on inspiration for innovation:

Getting customers to do it your way

Why be different when you could just be better?

What coat hangers teach us about business-to-business marketing

Thought leadership | December 2013