If you’re thinking about using the Net Promoter Score (NPS) on a business-to-business survey, there’s some extra factors you should consider before committing to this metric.
Net Promoter Score is a common, and somewhat controversial, measurement of a customer’s relationship to a company. It’s based on responses to the question, “How likely are you to recommend us to a friend or colleague?”, and is calculated by subtracting the percentage of low responses from the percentage of high responses. It has the advantage of being a simple and standardized metric, but also gets heavily criticized for being too simplistic and oversold. NPS also tends to get shoehorned into situations where it doesn’t make any sense, an unfortunate side-effect of being heavily (and wrongly, in my opinion) promoted as “the only survey score that matters.”
What is NPS Measuring?
The Net Promoter question asks the customer to imagine a scenario where they might be asked to make a recommendation about some product or service. The idea is that telling a friend to buy from a particular company is something most people will only do if they feel strongly about that company. Customers willing to make that commitment are valuable and potentially a source of word-of-mouth marketing (in the jargon of NPS, they are “Promoters”); whereas customers who feel the opposite can actively damage a brand (these are called “Detractors”). Subtracting the promoters from detractors gives you a single simple number, while emphasizing the fact that you want to have a lot more Promoters than Detractors.
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In the Business-to-Consumer world this all seems sensible. But in the Business-to-Business world there’s additional complexity.
B2B NPS Challenges
A number of common situations challenge the validity of NPS in the B2B world:
- Some companies prohibit their employees from making vendor recommendations to third parties. We regularly see B2B customers give “0” on the Net Promoter question, and give the reason as “I’m not allowed to make recommendations.”
- Buying decisions are much more complex in the B2B environment than B2c, and the recommendations of any one person might matter a lot or not at all. It doesn’t matter if nine out of ten people are Promoters if the one Detractor is the CEO.
- Relationships are much more complex in the B2B environment, and where many different people at the customer company interact with the vendor company, most of those people probably have only a limited view into the entire relationship.
In short, NPS is already simplistic in the B2C world, and trying to apply it to more complex B2B relationships is a challenge.
Fortunately, Most Customers Know What You Meant
This doesn’t mean that NPS is useless in the B2B world. Fortunately, we’ve found that in the real world most people don’t answer the Net Promoter question literally (though some do)–as demonstrated in the story from a few years ago about what happens when you try to get Promoters to actually recommend the product to a friend.
Instead, most people answer the Net Promoter question in a more generic way, providing a high level view of how they feel about the company overall. The question is being interpreted as something closer to, “How would you rate the company?” This is confirmed by the fact that on surveys where we ask both a Net Promoter question and a more generic Customer Satisfaction question, the answers tend to correlate almost perfectly.
This means we can get away with using Net Promoter even in situations where it might not strictly apply, because most customers will know what we’re trying to get at and answer the question behind the question. We still get some people who try to respond to the literal question (the “I’m not allowed to make recommendations” crowd), but they are in the minority.
Practical B2B NPS
I would not generally recommend using NPS in a B2B survey–instead, I would ask a more tailored question that gets at what you’re really trying to understand in the customer relationship. But if you do choose to use NPS for B2B (or if you’re required to use it), keep these things in mind:
- Understand that in B2B, there’s reasons to not make recommendations that have nothing to do with your business relationship. Look beneath the metric at the reasons customers give for their scores.
- Be aware of the fact that NPS will not capture the full complexity of the business relationship. It may be useful to look at separate scores by title or role; and a simple average NPS score could be very misleading.
- Account for the fact that individuals might not have any visibility at all into important aspects of the buying decision (price, for example, or backend integration). Make an effort to understand what factors do and do not influence each respondent’s survey rating.
Paying attention to these will help you get the most out of NPS in your B2B survey.