Are Bonuses Skewing Your CSAT Scores?

man buying black folder with document changing hands

Last summer my husband and I bought a car. After we’d spent many, many hours dealing with financing and signing papers, the salesperson handed us the keys and asked if we would please be kind enough to respond to a customer satisfaction survey we would soon be getting in the mail. Oh, and he informed us that — by the way — if we gave him a good score, he would get his bonus.

Business managers love the simple CSAT score, but motivated employees can easily game these scores in the right circumstances. . . This certainly seems to be the norm in my small sample of car buying experiences. At my grocery store, the checkout clerk always circles the CSAT URL at the bottom of the receipt and asks me to take the survey. We even got extra coupons the other day, along with the remark: “I really need this survey.” A colleague’s satellite installation technician told her flat-out that he wouldn’t get his bonus if he didn’t get a good score on a follow-up survey.

From these experiences alone, one can hypothesize that, skewed responses to CSAT surveys are more endemic in  service industries where the people who know they will be scored interact directly with the people who will be scoring them.  But we in market research all recognize that simple CSAT metrics are not perfect. Even smart business managers know it. One single metric cannot tell the whole story of a customer’s experience.

So how can we balance companies’ love of CSAT data with the need to be responsible with it?

  1. Look for anomalies in the data. Perhaps one sales person or one business unit is all of a sudden performing phenomenally better than peers. Do you know why?
  2. Make it standard practice to include and evaluate the results from other, more actionable metrics. I typically advise clients to follow-up NPS questions by digging into what prompted the score. Was it a great salesperson? A lackluster (or great) product that spoke for itself? Ask if customers would be willing to be contacted directly by the company as a follow-up.
  3. Involve business in follow-up. When customers agree to have a real person follow-up with them, have someone from the business (ideally a manager) be a part of this process. In a best case, the sample for this will be balanced among customers who range from the lowest of the low scores to the highest of the high scores.
  4. Right-size employee incentives. Steps 1 through 3 allow management to more realistically weight CSAT scores in employee incentive plans. Perhaps once an employee attains a certain level of performance, CSAT incentives focus not only on how well the performance is maintained, but how well customer check-ins support the scores.

Thus the exercise of quantifying customer satisfaction also requires subjective judgment and interpretation. It’s this kind of thoughtful analysis that can take CSAT programs to the next level by moving them beyond employee metrics to sources of insights and opportunities around how customer experience can be improved. And this is how CSAT can help grow a business, not just employees’ bonuses.

Tamara Barber is a marketer, researcher and writer. In her world, customer insights lead to great content, which leads to more sales. And she helps marketing and technology executives with all three. Find her at @tamarabarber or connect with her on LinkedIn.


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