Why Asking Customers to Rate Restroom Cleanliness is a Mistake.


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Last week, Lynn Davison and I were heading home to San Francisco from a client meeting in Seattle, and saw something new at SeaTac: A wireless restroom satisfaction polling tool. First thought? Pretty cool! A great way to get instant feedback from customers. And while I haven’t seen this before in the U.S., the last time I saw one of these was also in an airport – at Heathrow this summer, just after coming through security (I vaguely recall pounding that red button to the right…).

Which is what led me to my second and third thoughts: For something as easy to assess as cleanliness, why waste customer time asking their opinions on whether the restroom is clean or not? And of all the things affecting customer experience at SeaTac, why did they choose to measure that?

First things first: Why asking customers to measure restroom cleanliness is a mistake.

The basic principal behind customer experience improvement is to get “outside in” customer feedback, and analyze that information to figure out from the customers perspective what works, what doesn’t, and how well their expectations were met.

Because the experience “lives” in the minds of your customers, it can be challenging to measure expectations across different segments and customer types, because in many cases the perception of experience is highly variable. For example, what might be a great airport security experience for a family of four on their way to Disneyland is quite likely very different from mine – a business traveler late for his flight, stuck behind that same happy family.

This is why it’s important to focus customer experience research and data gathering efforts on those areas which are highly dependent on customer perception to understand how well that customer believes they are being served. Which brings us to the bathroom. I don’t doubt that a clean bathroom is an important thing to get right. But a clean bathroom isn’t a variable, subjective touchpoint (like security, or customs). Either the bathroom is clean, or it isn’t.

Which is why asking customers to rate something that doesn’t really require their input (don’t they have maintenance supervisors at SeaTac who could make this call with a 15 second visit?) is a waste of customer feedback, and a lost opportunity for airport management to get at customer insights on those areas where customer input is the only way to assess the experience.

So, first takeaway: If you’re going to ask your customers for feedback – and we strongly suggest you do – focus on those aspects of the experience that are both more subjective and that you can’t easily answer yourselves.

For customer experience research, is rating restroom cleanliness the most important thing to focus on?

We’ve not done any research on airport customer experience – yet. (Any airport execs reading this? We have some ideas we’d love to share with you…). But if we did, we’d approach it by helping to answer the same general questions commonly asked us over the last decade-plus helping companies improve customer experience: How can we determine what affects customer experience, and how well we’re doing? And among those things, where should we focus first to improve it?

The short answer is to analyze the data gathered through your outside-in customer feedback to understand which journeys, journey stages and touchpoints in each stage are most critical when it comes to driving customer loyalty. And related to that, to identify and remove dissatisfiers – because until those dissatisfiers are fixed, it’s really hard to drive loyalty.

Which once again brings us back to the airport bathroom. It’s a no brainer that this needs to be clean. Which is why the four point scale implied by the buttons in this photo won’t help the airport make many decisions – a clean bathroom is a dark green smiley face. Anything less isn’t clean. Which is why that maintenance person needs to have the checklist in hand to help them make that call (Trash cans empty? Toilets working? Soap dispensers full? Water on floor?), and the authority to fix it if there’s a problem.

Customer opinions should be asked in those areas where the experience is more subjective, and that can lead to actions resulting in a better experience. These might include journeys or touchpoints like customs, security, expedited processing and free luggage carts. Or using social media (Facebook, Twitter) and technology to keep travelers informed and answer questions. These are all things that can be done, and customer experience research can help identify and prioritize what should be done, to drive a better traveler experience.

Understanding customers’ perceptions of performance against their expectations is critical to improving experience in any business. That’s what will help you better understand what to focus on and how to effectively prioritize the specific service and experience improvements that will have the most impact on overall customer experience, and loyalty.

But the bathroom? Just set the standards that define “clean” and make sure your people keep them that way. Then focus your efforts on ways to understand and delight your travelers, no matter how different they may be.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. I saw that earlier this week at Sea-Tac. I was impressed, too, but your thoughts make a lot of sense. Curious, though–I just gave some feedback to Pocket (formerly Read it Later) about their app. When a customer service rep got back to me there was a similar feedback option at the bottom of his email (“How helpful was my response” followed by three faces–“happy,” “neutral,” and “sad.” After I clicked “happy,” I was linked to a page that confirmed my selection and asked “Any thoughts you’d like to share?” where I thanked him for suggesting I add my request to their feature request tracking system. Does that seem like a better application of this kind of feedback system?

  2. I saw the same apparatus at Washington Dulles Airport for rating check-in experience at United. Agreed: a person who wants to change his or her multi-segment reservation, ship eight pieces of odd-size luggage, and upgrade service levels will love the high-touch personal attention (happy face!), while I’m the fuming passenger standing in the queue behind who must re-book a single flight because the one that I was on got cancelled (red frowny-face).

    But I don’t agree with your point that a restroom is clean or it isn’t. People use airport restrooms for a variety of purposes (hold the snickering, please). For those who had more than one serving of coffee or beer even though fasten-seat-belt light was on for the duration of a long flight, it’s a quick stop. At least for me in this instance, cleanliness doesn’t matter. Just seeing the pictogram with the same-gender person is as gratifying as seeing a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Happy face? Sure, why not. It’s a BATHROOM.

    But not everyone has the same issue. Some need to brush their teeth. Change clothes. Take in small children and toddlers, including those of the opposite sex. Some change diapers – for children AND adults. Some come in simply to wash their hands and face. Oh, the humanity!

    For each of these tasks and more, people have different cleanliness expectations. As a pit stop at the end of a long flight, mine are pretty low. Just north of ‘disgusting’ will do. I’m much more concerned that I didn’t have to walk three concourses to reach the closest facility, and that I didn’t get run over by those exiting.

    So should airports take a quick survey to learn what people think of their bathrooms? Sure. Why not? I don’t see any foul. There’s plenty of opportunity for detailed studies – like how people use an airport restroom in the first place.

  3. Hi Michael

    I am with Andy on this one. But for a different reason.

    Whilst I agree that the cleanliness of toilets is probably not high on the minds of most customer when choosing a restaurant for a family meal, prior experience of dirty, unhygienic, unsafe toilets could easily become a blocking factor. Toilets raise the important distinction between satisfiers and dissatisfiers. Satisfiers are features that contribute towards a customer’s satisfaction. Surveys like those from JD Power provide these for many industries. But that is only one half of the story. Dissatisfiers are features that contribute towards a customer’s dissatisfaction. They are often very different to the satisfiers.

    Dirty toilets are a sign of lack of attention to detail by management. If the toilets are not as clean as they should be it makes me wonder whether the kitchen will be as clean as should be too. It makes me wonder whether the food ingredients will be as fresh as they should be. And it makes me wonder whether the meal I order will be cooked as well as it should be. The devil is in managing the detail.

    in a nutshell, toilet cleanliness may not be a satisfier for most customers, but it surely is a dissatisfier.

    Graham Hill

  4. I think we are missing the bigger problem with these little portals. I saw multiple people not wash there hands and use the survey. While rating cleanliness they created something that in it self is probably covered in bacteria. I just cleansed my hands in a public place and now am going to touch something that is less than clean? Why don’t you pick your infirmity by touching one of these buttons. No thanks!

  5. I just stumbled upon your post, and I would like to correct a misconception. Maybe you are already aware, since it has been 4 years, but those buttons are primarily used as means to know when a bathroom needs attention without having a waste of time and personnel checking them. This way you can renounce a predefined schedule and offer an on demand service.


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