Have customer satisfaction scores become useless?

Exceptional customer experiences are what drive word of mouth marketing.  As marketers we often strive to improve customer advocacy by using customer satisfaction surveys to collect feedback about our service interactions. Sadly, the method is easily manipulated and instead of soliciting sincere feedback, many teams are gaming the system to collect high scores.

This is exactly what I experienced at a recent trip to our local restaurant/arcade.

Upon arriving at over stimulation land – lights flashing, music blaring, dollars practically jumping out of my wallet for tokens –  we were quickly seated. Our server stopped by to introduce himself. We were off to a good start when something strange happened. After asking if we’d been to the restaurant before, our waiter handed me a slip of paper with a link to a survey.  He explained that we should fill out the survey now (using the provided code), and give all fives because if we did we’d be his BFF (seriously, I’m not making this up), and it was “the only way” to guarantee a $10 off coupon for our next visit.  Clearly this was for the table he had served before us, as we hadn’t even ordered our food. I smiled and put the survey aside. He stood waiting for me to pull out my phone and go to the survey URL. I explained I’d be happy to fill it out after our meal had been served. He smiled and took our order.

I worried he would spit in my food.

Our food came and we ate quickly, the boys anxious to dart off and play arcade games. After they disappeared, $25 game cards in hand, I asked for the check. Our bill came with another survey, this one for my order. The marketing researcher in me was curious, so I logged into the online survey.  As you’d expect I was asked about the food,  would I recommend the restaurant, was the restaurant clean, my server’s responsiveness, etc. Most questions asked me to respond on a 5-star scale. 1 was unsatisfied, 5 extremely satisfied.

After I’d filled out the survey, my waiter came by to pick up payment. I asked him why he had been so anxious for us to fill out the first survey.  Did he have a bet going?  This nice young man sat down and looked me in the eye. He explained that he was trying to get assigned to bar tables (presumably because he’d make more money in tips), and that his manager made all their decisions solely on the surveys. If he didn’t get all fives across everything in the survey,  he didn’t get good assignments, raises or extra shifts.

Think about this for a minute.  The manager was not interested in finding out what was done well, and where the restaurant could improve. They were holding the waiter hostage to a specific score, essentially rewarding servers who were good at begging for fives. Later I even saw the manager quietly scold the server for not getting a perfect score across every question, most of which were unrelated to the waiter’s job. They were not discussing how the waiter could have made our meal more satisfactory, they were discussing how the server could have asked me about the survey differently to get a five. Clearly, the manager didn’t want actual feedback on my meal experience. This manager was teaching how to get a specific score, not how to act on feedback.

Did any of this improve my experience as a customer?  One could argue that by making decisions based on the survey results, wait staff are motivated to provide a good experience. This may be true in theory, but in practice does it make the service better? Or does it make the server manipulate when and who fills out surveys?

While my waiter was a bit over enthusiastic, he’s not alone. I recently experienced similar “give me 5 begging” at my car dealership, and after a call center exchange.

Does this mean that survey data is useless? I doubt it, but how many marketers are using them borders on counterproductive.

If we want to collect feedback that will improve customer interactions we need to stop motivating employees to manipulate the system. Instead, we have to collect and use the data to actually improve our service. This means reducing our dependance on scores, and instead focusing on qualitative insights. For example, we could ask these two simple questions.

What did we do well today?

Where did we disappoint you?

After all, what numbers are going to tell you more about your business – a customer satisfaction score? Or return visits and average order value trends over time?