Please rate us a 10

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Customer feedback is everywhere. Nearly every shop, company, service and experience asks that you give your feedback. Just this week, I’ve had emails asking for feedback from a health insurer, a storage company and a restaurant. ‘Your opinion is important to us’, they say. ‘We would appreciate your feedback’, they say. But is it genuinely feedback they want or is it a positive review?

Overall, it’s great to see companies embrace customer feedback. I’ve spent a lot of my career working with user-centred methods and user research. I will always believe in listening to customers and I’m glad their views are sought. But I also notice that the way some feedback surveys are implemented can inadvertently have negative impacts for both customers and employees. And I wonder if we’re always getting reliable data.

Why did you give that score?

I once got a massage in a hotel and was given a paper feedback form to complete after. As I was leaving, the therapist stopped me to ask about my ratings (awkward). Why did I only give a 3 out of 5? Uh well, I wrote it on the form. Because the pressure was a bit off and I didn’t always find it comfortable. But why didn’t you say that? Uh well, I thought I had? Anyway this is my opinion, as requested! Therein lies a challenge. Most places want you to tell them if there’s a problem so they can resolve it before a review or feedback stage. And that is a good idea. But sometimes, you just can’t or simply prefer to get the thing done so you can go about your day. As a customer, I ended up feeling guilty that I potentially upset someone via feedback and maybe I should have ignored the form in the first place. Or lied. Should I say everything was excellent next time so they let me leave?

Instructions for feedback

That was years ago and since then, feedback requests have only increased along with customers being encouraged to leave positive reviews. Companies use social proof in the form of positive ratings to sell their service. We know customers use the reviews of other customers to decide where to spend their money. That’s led to a trend for companies to explicitly ask you to rate them as 10 out of 10. I first heard this on a podcast and it was positioned as a joke: ‘Please leave us a 5 star rating or don’t rate us! LOL’. But increasingly, this tone used in many serious feedback requests.

Net Promoter Score is a very popular method that many companies use to measure their service quality. Scores from customers can be linked to performance management, bonuses and employee incentives. This means many people are motivated to maximise the percentage of Promoters, those scoring 9 or 10 in response to how likely they would be to recommend the service. Which can lead to the customer being given unsubtle hints on what score to give. At what point does this introduce bias?

Extract from a pamphlet given to a customer

Ratings pressure

The Circle is a dystopian novel written in 2013. It depicts a worker who joins a futuristic tech company where she is tasked with helping resolve customer queries. She must keep her customer service help-desk ratings above a certain level. She has to work harder and harder to maintain this, since dropping below the rating level means her motivation is questioned. This is presented as an early warning sign of a high-pressure toxic culture, but similar thinking is commonplace in some jobs now. If employees are targeted on high scores, it’s hard for them not to adapt their behaviour and the messages sent to customers can reflect the pressure they are under.

Text from a utilities company

Ratings pressure can leave the customer in a position where they don’t feel able to give honest feedback at all. See the example above, where the customer is asked to give a 9 or higher rating. In this case, the engineer couldn’t fix the problem. 3 separate engineers over 3 appointments were unable to fix it, so the customer wasn’t happy. Yet the message sent discouraged feedback with lower ratings. ‘Don’t tell us if you didn’t like it’ is a message that could be deemed acceptable for free podcasts and blog posts. In a world of content, you can scroll onward and find something that is more your cup of tea. But isn’t it problematic for utilities providers and other essential services to take the same approach?

Trusted reviews and the impact of feelings

Google and TrustPilot reviews from customers can be very helpful information sources, but they can also be bewildering. Looking up reviews of a doctor’s practice, I found positive feedback and a few detailed negative reviews where the staff responded with equally detailed negative reviews of the customer! Who is to be trusted?

People tend to leave reviews when the outcome of an experience has been very positive or very negative. It’s just not that interesting to say if the experience was average. Feelings are also a factor in feedback. Consider the heightened stress you may feel if you’re having a medical procedure. Any mistake is scary and a positive outcome feels like a huge relief. Hospital reviews written by patients may all be as extreme as that. Are they still reliable?

Even in more everyday situations, customers are going through things in their lives that companies can’t impact. Imagine you go to a coffee shop to see a friend, have a brilliant conversation and lots of laughs over your cappuccino. You might rate the cafe 10/10 that day. Next time you visit, you’ve just broken up with your partner. You can’t even taste the coffee and only think about how bad you feel. You might now rate the cafe 5/10. Can we always differentiate between how we feel inside and the external environment? How much do moods affect scores? On a sunny day, doesn’t everything seem a bit nicer?

Ideas for feedback collection

How might we mitigate these issues and continue to benefit from honest customer feedback?

  • Open-ended questions are our friends. Tell us about your experience today. What worked well? What could be improved?
  • Separate public ratings from internal feedback. Give people both options. Call out how you’d like customers to handle things – if our engineer didn’t fix your problem, tell us here. If you’d like a follow up call to resolve an issue, select the option here.
  • Allow ways for the customer to say the staff member was great but the overall experience wasn’t. Customers are aware that their ratings might impact staff and this shouldn’t prevent them for sharing how the company could improve its processes.
  • Be cautious about linking performance directly to ratings. Is the data trustworthy? Remember that customers have feelings outside of your service. It is possible they just aren’t having a 10/10 day. Remember cultural differences too.
  • Be aware of the pressure on employees and customers to give positive ratings. Review your messaging — is it introducing bias?

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Jessica Richards

Jessica Richards

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Product & UX Consultant. Founder of Creative Product Consulting. Feminist. World traveller. Empathy & cats.