• Robert Walker

Why are Customer Satisfaction Research Experiences so bad?


Automated surveys are everywhere, triggered by retail and online purchases, a flight you took, or your dentist. If you are like me, you probably get wee bit cranky when you experience a badly conceptualized customer feedback interview. We seem to be swimming in an ocean of really, really bad feedback programs. Why is this happening, and why does it seem to be happening on such a massive scale?

The two primary causes of poor survey quality are CRM auto-generated surveys and poorly executed DIY. There isn't much you can do about this. What you can do is make sure that your programs are world-class.

The most effective customer satisfaction programs embody thoughtfulness, intelligence, and even a little irreverence. Too often, programs miss the mark and companies can actually damage the relationships they are trying to nurture with poorly executed programs.


In my experience, customer satisfaction programs can implode for multiple reasons:

  • Questions assume that customers can accurately isolate all elements of their purchase experience. Marketing researchers and data scientists spend a great deal of time identifying all of the dimensions that need to be evaluated. But most customers are incapable of remembering more than a few things (even if they were experienced moments before). Expecting hyper-granular customer feedback is unrealistic.

  • The emotional state of the buyer at the time of purchase is ignored. If we know someone’s emotional state before or during a purchase experience, we can better understand how customers are interacting with us as marketers – and do something about it. If I have a surly register clerk, a rude gate agent, or am in a poor frame of mind, my ability to provide useful feedback is compromised. Conversely, if I am always greeted with a smile at Starbucks do I care if my latte doesn't have enough whipped cream?

  • The longitudinal (holistic) relationship with your customer is overlooked. In addition to the current wave of feedback, have you bothered to look at the same customer over time? Have you acknowledged the customer relationship in your questions or survey flow? Are you nurturing or alienating? Questions that capture the longitudinal dimension can help business operations improve.

  • Questions are mistimed with product use (e.g., questions are asked before the product is used, or asked when not enough time has passed for the product to be appropriately assessed). If I am asked to complete a survey off of a cash register receipt, but the questions are about products I’ve yet to use, how am I expected to report on my level of satisfaction?

  • Framing questions around the product or buying occasion and not the customer. It's not about the product, it's about your customer. Did the customer feel valued? Were they treated with dignity and respect? Staples recently sent me a feedback request labeled my “paper towel experience”. This is awful.

  • Don't assume that a purchase is in a category where repeat buying is routine. This includes recommendations for additional purchases that the retailer would like me to consider. My favorite solicitation was after I had purchased a car battery. Amazon proudly suggested other car batteries I might want to buy because well, you know, you can never have too many car batteries.

  • Don't focus on a single score, or assume that buyers will, on an unsolicited basis, recommend products to others. I have written about this in previous posts. Consultants continue to push this "single score" narrative. It is plain wrong. Yet companies are willing to pay for this sage guidance.

Companies should not feel compelled to collect feedback after every purchase or experience. This is unnecessary and saturates the customer with far too many requests for feedback. This causes damage not only to the company, but the data of everyone else who need feedback. Companies are best served by collecting data on an Nth-name transaction basis and letting sampling theory do the rest.

The compulsion to collect feedback after each and every interaction harms data quality – and weakens the bonds of the buyer-seller relationship.

Customer satisfaction programs deliver important KPI's to assess performance and, programs should be conducted because it makes a material difference.


But we must avoid the temptation to mindlessly automate customer satisfaction programs. The goal is to make the customer happy. The way things are going, it’s causing more harm than good.


If you'd like, let's continue the discussion.

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