The Dark Side of Satisfaction Surveys


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Last summer, I wrote about how companies can easily fall into the trap of fielding customer surveys that tell them exactly what they want to hear (click here to see that post).

I came across yet another example of this recently, when I took my car in for service at the dealership. As is common these days, the auto dealership and manufacturer survey customers following the service visit.

On this particular visit, when I went to get my car keys and pay for the work at the service desk, the cashier looked me in the eye and had this to say:

“You’ll be getting a survey about your experience here today. We hope you can rate your satisfaction level as Excellent. Please note that any rating below Excellent is considered a failing grade for Connie.”

(Connie was the dealer’s representative who handled my service appointment and intake that day.)

I was surprised the cashier didn’t also tell me that without an Excellent survey rating, Connie wouldn’t be able to get that operation her son needs and her home would be subject to foreclosure.

Talk about introducing bias into a survey! I sure wouldn’t want to be responsible for Connie getting berated by her boss, just because I thought her interaction with me was Very Good instead of Excellent.

Even if I were generally satisfied with the service experience, when the cashier personalizes the survey outcomes in this manner, it can easily lead people like me to artificially inflate their ratings.

Would it cause a dissatisfied customer to elevate his or her rating to Excellent? Probably not. More likely, however, is that it would compel moderately satisfied customers to check the top box, because they just can’t stomach the alternative for poor Connie.

As a result, it starts to look from the surveys like you’ve left a very strong, positive impression on people – when in truth those are inaccurate results, biased by the survey instructions, as conveyed by the cashier.

When businesses elevate the importance of customer satisfaction by formally measuring it and perhaps even incorporating it into performance assessments, there’s a risk that the endeavor pushes employees to the “Dark Side.”

That’s where an organization’s single-minded, relentless focus on a metric actually starts to drive adverse employee behavior – in this case, bastardizing survey instructions just so people can hit a particular satisfaction metric.

To help keep your organization away from the Dark Side, make sure your employees recognize that the long-term health of their business depends not just on good customer feedback, but accurate customer feedback.

I’m sure even Connie would agree with that.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jon Picoult
As Founder of Watermark Consulting, Jon Picoult helps companies impress customers and inspire employees. An acclaimed keynote speaker, Jon’s been featured by dozens of media outlets, including The Wall St Journal and The New York Times. He’s worked with some of the world’s foremost brands, personally advising CEOs and executive teams.Learn more at or follow Jon on Twitter.


  1. Jon,

    This is what you get when you pay for performance and don’t audit the activity. No balanced equation here. Also, it is deeply knit into the auto industry. I had the painful experience of meeting with the puppet players in the customer experience department of the US division of an auto company with 3 initials in its name. They sited this as a major problem, which was preventing them from capturing consumers insights to drive the business. That is what my firm does, provide consumer insights. Yet they also stated they could not change the practice because (very high) payouts were based on the results and there was no way the dealers would accept a change to the program. To make a long story short, its a lost cause. Like government healthcare.


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