As you came through airport security this summer, did you pop one of those smiley faces as you scooped up your bags and swung past towards your departure gate? The company behind them, HappyOrNot, says that using faces rather than numerical scores increases positive ratings. That seems appealing. But it misses the point. Positive ratings are over-rated.

There’s a host of reasons for low scores, from ad hoc operational failures through to structural factors that are slow or costly to change, or pricing models that customers dislike. These are totally different issues, and it’s madness to mix them up. Operational glitches are to be avoided, sure. Here the smiley face machine earns its keep. Moving customer feedback from an occasional survey to a continuous process gives granular data to manage and perfect routine processes. But structural causes of dissatisfaction are powerful sources of innovation, which can lead to competitive advantage if a firm is brave enough to acknowledge them. Marketers, especially, should be curious about the satisfaction gap. If it’s not there, you?re missing out.

But many firms use customer satisfaction ratings to monitor, reward and fire their sales and service people. That’s a problem. When I last bought a car, the sales person asked me to give her 5 out of 5 because, she explained, that’s what the company required of her. In some places Uber drivers have to maintain a rating of 4.6 out of 5 to stay on the roster. They’re forbidden from asking for good scores, so they wear themselves out trying to be uber-nice. Academic studies of this extra effort, this “emotional labour”, have shown that it places a significant strain on people, and can, over time, lead to burn-out. In both cases, by pushing for false positives, firms are losing one of their best sources of market information.

Most normal marketers also hope for good cust sat scores. Of course we do. So here’s a three-step programme to check your firm’s approach, in order to improve those ratings in the long term.

  1. Are you getting useful, actionable feedback? Check how the system is being applied so you know whether you really have high satisfaction, or ho hum good enough performance, with pressure on customers not to ruin other people’s bonuses or risk costing them their jobs.
  1. Is your best source of stimulus for maintaining competitive advantage being sanitised? It is not always culturally acceptable to focus on the negative. No one wants to be a misery-guts. OK, celebrate the satisfaction scores, then explore the gap. Paddy Barwise and Seán Meehan’s books, Simply Better and Beyond the Familiar, show that customer dissatisfaction provides more valuable and actionable feedback than customer satisfaction. They show how to use dissatisfaction across the organisation to make things better, and ultimately drive satisfaction up.
  1. Are you missing opportunities for more radical innovation? Even if they are genuine ratings, getting top marks leaves you nowhere to go. Is it really perfection, or might there be ways it could be better? If your satisfaction ratings are too high, it’s time to revisit the questions you’re asking. Bookshops thought their wonderful range was close to perfect, until someone thought of saving you the bother of a trip into town. Airlines thought perfecting in-flight experience was the goal, until Virgin Atlantic realised the end to end journey mattered, and then South West Airlines in the US and Easyjet here realised people were willing to trade off a lot of comfort and privileges if it made flying cheaper.

All of this can only work if customer-facing people are not afraid of customer feedback, good or bad. Marketers can help by being curious and open to dissatisfaction, showing how the insights it yields are opportunities for change, and by appreciating those who bring them.

Thought leadership | September 2016