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Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Illusionist: The Customer Service Survey

How many times are you confronted by a desperate employee asking you to go online, or through a telephone prompt, and complete a short survey to rate their service?  This happens to me quite a bit, and it makes me ponder the real return on investment of such endeavors for an organization.

The purpose of any survey is to retrieve information.  Most of us have experience seeking information from people that are important to us.  For example informally, you might survey your family what they would like for dinner tonight.  Why do you do this?  You want to make what they want (customer satisfaction), and that you are not wasting your resources (food, time) to provide for their needs.  

Take this to a macro level, and this is the strategic reason for a customer service survey.  To ensure you satisfy the needs of your customers, so they buy or engage with you at a higher level, and that your organization is using its resources as effectively as possible to make this happen.

Where does this go wrong?

When you survey your family for dinner you are working directly with the customer population effected by the direct actions you take.   There is no middleman, and you do not need to work with a sampling.   The people surveyed will experience the results of the survey.

Once you start working in an organization where thousands, to tens of thousands, customers will be affected, of course you cannot speak to every customer.  It is not cost effective, nor logistically possible.  To combat this, an organization starts to make decisions who they survey. 

BUT once you start making choices who you survey, you can no longer take the results as gospel!  

My experience is this aspect of the survey is glossed over when discussing the results with either decision makers or with the front line employees who provide the service. 

Think about your own experiences.  When are you more inclined to complete a survey?  My guess is either when you are extraordinarily thrilled with the service, product provided, or when you are extraordinarily upset, ticked off with the service or product.  If this thought is extended to the results you receive, then the results are unintentionally skewed by what is known as the “halo effect.”  Whatever their general impression of the company is how they will skew to the overall survey, positively or negatively.

My point: you are only hearing the voice of people with strong opinions, and I am not sure they are the folks who can help you make better decisions how to run your operation.  Extremes of any kind rarely give you the most bang for your buck.

The information is helpful, but should you make large strategic decisions or terminate an employee based on these results?  I would be extremely cautious.  Leaders like metrics, of course, and a survey is easily quantifiable, so it removes the need to dig in to the business, which is time consuming.  Everyone is so busy it is quicker to review survey results, make a decision based on those numbers, and move on to the next crisis. 

Now you might be thinking, but we don’t use just these metrics.  Well if you don’t weigh only these metrics, what are you using to make these decisions?   How much can you trust any information you receive?  It is all skewed, to a degree.

The Customer Service Guru Solution

Your customers’ perception of your service is an extremely important metric to running your business. I am not anti-survey in the least.  What I am watchful about is when the results are used as the end of the discussion, and not as a motivator to move the discussion forward at a strategic level. 

Surveys are also very expensive to administrate, and I am concerned those dollars and resources are used in place of diving deeper into your business to know what are your true issues versus perceived issues from a small customer population, and in place of investing in infrastructure or human resources that are kind of “Duh, we should fix this.”   Not everything needs a gazillion pieces of ‘scientific’ evidence to change.  Especially for those leaders who grew up in the organization, or are customers of your product, they should be aware of at least some of these “Duh” fixes.

Surveys are part art, part science.  What you do with the results is also part art, part science.  Keep this in mind as you develop, distribute, and analyze the results of any, internal or external, survey your company participates in.

Next time I address customer service surveys, I will get to the actual questions.  Oh my! 


  1. The other day I was encouraged to fill out a survey online but mostly because I could win $10,000 if I did. Is this the way companies are trying to avoid the ‘halo’ effect? The employee did not ask me to give high ratings, just to fill out the survey. Do you think prize money helps finding people without extreme opinions? I have to admit I did not read all questions and just wanted to get to the end and ‘click’ submit and win $10,000!

  2. Jonathan, thank you for your comment. You bring up another aspect of who is actually completing the surveys. Once the survey offers an incentive, motivations can adjust to more than simply offering one’s opinion. The unanswerable question is, “Is this customer telling us what they really think on an average day, or is some other factor coming in to play?” Also should incentived 'voices' be given equal weight in what you do with the results? It is a question with no right answer, but as leaders you should at the very least consider your philosophy on it.