An Egregious Case of Survey Begging

Survey begging is a scourge on customer service.

This is when an employee asks a customer to give a positive score on a survey by explaining how it will directly benefit the customer, the employee, or both.

For example, here's a receipt from the now defunct Sports Authority that clearly indicates what score the customer is supposed to give. The cashier backed this up with a verbal entreaty to mark the survey "highly satisfied."

highlysatisfied.JPG

I recently experienced one of the most egregious examples I've seen. I'm sharing it with you now as a cautionary tale.

My wife, Sally, and I were checking out of a hotel and went to the front desk to get our receipt. The associate helping us looked me straight in the eye and said, "You may get a survey; I'd appreciate it if you gave us all tens."

Never mind this was a violation of the hotel's policy. It was poor customer service to so blatantly ask for a good survey score. Worst of all was the associate never asked any basic questions to see if those tens were merited, such as "How was your stay?"

I often learn more about what motivates employees to do this so I replied, "Did you just ask me to fill out a survey and give you all tens?"

"Yes," he replied with a smile.

"You don't want me to fill out a survey."

"Why not?" he asked.

I proceeded to tell him my experience was definitely not all tens. The reason I was at the front desk checking out was I never received my receipt via email. A ten experience would involve me getting that email so I could skip the minor inconvenience of stopping at the front desk. (Pro travel tip: you don't need to actually check out at most hotels. You'll be checked out automatically.)

I also told the associate I did not receive any confirmation that loyalty points had been added to my account in return for opting out of housekeeping service one night during my stay. That would have happened automatically if my experience was a ten.

So far I thought I was doing the guy a favor. I was giving him honest and direct feedback rather than sharing it in a survey where my score would certainly be lower than a ten. There were more issues, such minor cleanliness and maintenance problems with my room, but the associate had already heard all he wanted to hear.

"Thank you," he said. "I'll be sure to share that feedback with my manager. I'd also appreciate it if you mentioned me in the survey and gave me a 10 for listening to you and respecting you as a man."

Wow. 

I had just witnessed the elusive double survey beg! This associate doubled down by appealing to some sort of bro code in hopes that I would give him a perfect survey score.

 

How Survey Begging Hurts Your Business

Survey begging can discourage honest feedback that would otherwise alert you to an issue. It's also a huge turn-off to many customers. 

In my case, my stay was mediocre. Nothing to rave about and a few minor complaints that didn't really seem worth mentioning unless someone asked. I gladly would have shared my honest feedback with the associate if he had handled things differently. He may even have earned my repeat business with an assurance that things would be improved. 

Not now. Mediocre experience + survey begging = do not return.

There's no way I'm the only guest this happened to that day. There's a good chance that hotel loses five repeat guests per day from survey begging. Maybe more, it's hard to tell.

The worst part is there is no data point out there to capture why this hotel is losing customers. 

 

Take Action!

Customer service leaders should take time to explain the purpose of a survey to their employees. They should make it crystal clear that the point is to get honest feedback that will help improve service, not land a target score.

Sadly, customer service leaders often cause employees to beg for survey scores through incentives, punitive policies, and other actions that focus on getting a certain score. 

You can find examples of ways leaders accidentally prompt survey begging plus several tactics to get employees by reading here.


9 Underhanded Ways to Boost Your Survey Scores

I'll never forget shoplifting class.

It was a workshop for associates at the retail chain I worked for in high school. The idea was to help us prevent shoplifting by showing us how shoplifters operated.

The class was amazing. We learned advanced techniques used by professionals, such as how to defeat alarm sensors, conceal piles of merchandise, or confuse clueless sales people.

Quite a few thefts were prevented as a result of the class.

So, in the spirit of that training, I bring this blog post to you. Many customer service professionals are willing to stoop to underhanded means to artificially boost survey scores.

This post will help you catch them.

Technique #1: Manipulate Your Sample

You can't survey everyone, so companies survey a small portion of their customers, called the sample.

Ideally, your sample represents the thoughts and opinions of all your customers. However, you can make a few tweaks to increase the likelihood that only happy customers are surveyed.

For example, you could survey customers who complete a transaction using self-service. You'll likely get high scores since self-service transactions are typically simple and you are only surveying people who succeeded. Customers who get frustrated and switch to another channel for live help won't be counted in this survey.

There are other ways to get higher scores by being selective about your sample.

  • Limit your survey to channels with simpler transactions, like chat.
  • Limit your survey to people who have contacted you just once.
  • Limit your survey to people who contact you for certain types of transactions.

 

Technique #2: Manually Select Respondents

Some employees can manually select survey respondents. This enables them to target happy customers while leaving out the grumpy ones.

The survey invitation at the bottom of a register receipt is an excellent example. If a customer is obviously happy, the employee can circle the invitation, write down his or her name, and politely ask the customer to complete the survey.

What if the customer is grumpy? It's pretty easy to tear off the receipt above the survey invitation so the customer never sees it.

Look for any situation where employees have some manual control over who gets a survey. There's the potential for an employee to by choosy about who gets surveyed and who doesn't.

 

Technique #3: Survey Begging

This occurs when an employee asks a customer to give a positive score on a survey by explaining how it will directly benefit the customer, the employee, or both.

I've written about this scourge before, but it's worth mentioning again here. Employees beg, plead, and even offer incentives to customers in exchange for a good score.

In one example, a retail store manager offered a 20 percent discount in exchange for a perfect 10 on a customer service survey.

In another example, a cashier stamped register receipts with the requested survey response:

Image credit: Jeff Toister

Image credit: Jeff Toister

Technique #4: Fake Surveys

Anonymous survey systems are easy to game. These include pen and paper surveys or electronic surveys that aren't tied to a specific transaction or customer record.

Unscrupulous employees have been known to enter fake surveys, complete with top ratings and glowing comments. They enlist their friends and family members to do the same.

 

Technique #5: Incentivize Employees

Give employees an incentive to get high survey scores and you'll likely learn a few new tricks.

In one company, technical support was divided into Tier 1 for easy inquiries and Tier 2 for more complicated requests. Tier 1 employees quickly learned they could transfer any upset customer to the Tier 2 team to avoid having that person complete a survey about them. 

The poor Tier 2 employee was now stuck with the angry customer and would be the subject of any follow-up survey.

Why would the Tier 1 employees do this? They earned a cash bonus each month if they kept their survey scores above a certain level.

 

Technique #6: Write Positive Survey Questions

Survey questions can easily be slanted to elicit more positive responses. Consider these two examples.

This question is positively worded. Notice that the threshold for giving a top rating of "Strongly Agree" is pretty low; the customer merely has to be satisfied with the service they received.

This question is neutral. It's more likely to get a lower overall rating even though the feedback may be more accurate.

 

Technique #7: Use an Even Scale

There's a long-running argument over whether customer surveys should have a odd or even point scale.

An odd-numbered scale, such as 1 - 5, provides customers with the option to provide a neutral rating.

An even numbered scale, such as 1 - 4, forces customers to choose a positive or negative overall rating. 

More often than not, you'll tip customers into a positive rating by eliminating the mid-point.

 

Technique #8: Change Your Scoring Process

The exact meaning of a "customer satisfaction rate" is up for interpretation. You can interpret this loosely to increase your score.

Let's say you survey 100 customers using a scale of 1 - 5 with the following scale points and responses:

  • 1 = Highly Dissatisfied (2 responses)
  • 2 = Dissatisfied (6 responses)
  • 3 = Neutral (7 responses)
  • 4 = Satisfied (45 responses)
  • 5 = Highly Satisfied (40 responses)

You could report the score as a weighted average and call it 4.15 or 83 percent. Or, you could simply add the satisfied (45) and highly satisfied (40) customers and give yourself an 85 percent rating.

Even better, combine this technique with an even-numbered scale. Those same 100 customers might respond this way:

  • 1 = Highly Dissatisfied (2 responses)
  • 2 = Dissatisfied (8 responses)
  • 3 = Satisfied (50 responses)
  • 4 = Highly Satisfied (40 responses)

Suddenly, you can boast of a 90 percent customer satisfaction rating from the same group! This little bit of trickery just boosted the score by 7 percentage points.

 

Technique #9: Adopt a Generous Error Procedure

Some people advocate rejecting surveys with an obvious error.

For example, let's say a customer rates your service as a 1, the lowest score possible, and then writes:

"Hands-down the best service ever. If I could give a higher score I would. I absolutely love their service!!"

You can reasonably conclude this customer meant to give a 5, not a 1. Using that logic, the survey could be removed. Some unscrupulous people might correct the score to a 5 (the highest score possible).

This technique manipulates your scores directly, so unethical service leaders might adopt a generous error procedure. 

For example, a neutral score of a 3 combined with a mildly positive comment might be kicked out as an error or even adjusted to a 4 based on the comment. These adjustments can really add up and significantly impact an overall average!

 

Conclusion

I want to be clear that I don't advocate the use of any of these techniques.

The real purpose of a customer service survey is to gain actionable insight from your customers that allows you to improve service. You can't do that if you use these methods to artificially inflate your scores.

You can learn more about sound methods for implementing a customer service survey via this training video on lynda.com.

You'll need a lynda.com account to watch the entire course, but you can get a 10-day trial.


Companies Are Trying to Blame Employees for Service Failures

Sandee gave the same speech to every customer.

"If you give me a 10 on the survey, the whole store gets credit. If you give me an 8 or less, I'll get in trouble."

This was a classic case of survey begging. It was annoying and inauthentic, but it was easy to understand why she did it. Sandee was try to avoid getting some heat for anything short of a top tier survey score.

This is an example of a corporate blame system. The frontline employee is set up to take the fall for anything that goes wrong, even if it's out of her control.

It's a disturbing trend. 

The Blame Game

Surveys are a common tool used against employees.

Employees like Sandee face sanctions if they're named in a survey that's anything short of spectacular. A car salesman recently told me he received a customer survey full of glowing comments, but the overall rating was an 8 out of 10. The salesman's reward was getting some of his commission docked for the "poor" survey result.

Company PR teams like to blame employees too.

Two years ago, a Comcast customer recorded the cancellation call from hell. He spent ten minutes trying to cancel his service while the Comcast rep continuously badgered him about keeping his account. 

Predictably, Comcast's PR strategy was to blame the employee for the incident. I took a closer look and discovered it wasn't the employee's fault. Comcast had intentionally designed a system that made it hard for customers to cancel and then hired a team of Retention Specialists who were trained and incentivized to prevent cancellations.

In another example from 2015, protesters lined up outside an Arby's in Florida after an employee allegedly refused to serve a police officer. It turned out the officer wasn't refused service, and the store manager was fired for creating an unfortunate incident. Yet, somehow, the exonerated employee was still suspended.

 

Is It Fair to Blame Employees?

Sometimes, the answer is yes.

Let's draw a line between unacceptable, lone-wolf behavior and the behavior you'd naturally get when you put an employee is a difficult situation or don't give the employee the resources or empowerment to help their customers.

Recently, a Starbucks employee (called Partners at Starbucks) typed "Diabetes here I come" on a customer's drink label. It made national headlines and caused the company a lot of embarrassment.

This is clearly unacceptable behavior. Kudos then to Starbucks for issuing a statement that still spoke to collective responsibility:

“We strive to provide an inclusive and positive experience for our customers, and we're disappointed to learn of this incident. We are working directly with the customer to apologize for his experience, and with our partners (employees) to ensure this does not happen again.”

Of course, there are many times when it's not fair to blame the employee. 

Don Peppers recently reported that Delta Airlines was asking customers to rate their phone service reps with a single question: Would you hire this person?

The problem is a customer can easily direct their anger towards a hapless customer service rep. Flight delays, cancellations, lost baggage, exorbitant flight change fees, and a myriad of other issues are all beyond the agent's ability to control. 

Granted, a terrific customer service rep might be able to turn things around despite all those obstacles. Perhaps the employee can learn to be more successful in these challenge situations, but blaming them when they fall short takes it too far.

 

Why Companies Blame Employees

The big picture is PR. 

They'd like the public to view any service failures as the work of a lone wolf rather than a systematic issue. Companies that use this tactic are depending on us customers not being able to see through this charade.

There's also another reason that corporate executives may not realize. I call it the intermediary problem. It's something that I discovered while conducting research for my book, Service Failure.

The intermediary problem suggests that it's easier for us to treat someone else poorly if we do it through an intermediary. 

For example, a 2009 experiment by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University gave subjects $10 to share with a partner. They found that subjects shared an average of $1 less when they used a intermediary (i.e. an employee) to determine how much to share.

Here's a real life example of the intermediary problem that's happened to many customer service teams. 

A customer service executive is contacted by a furious customer. The executive feels bad about the situation and promises to make it right. The executive passes the case to a customer service manager and demands swift action.

What the executive never realizes is that the customer's problem was caused by staffing cuts that the executive had made to save money. The executive didn't think about the thousands of customers those cuts would affect because those customers were served by intermediaries (i.e. employees). The executive did care about the one furious customer because that person contacted the executive directly.

 

The Solution

All of this leads to a simple solution.

Executives need to spend time on their frontlines. They need to talk to customers directly. They should spend time listening to frontline employees who serve customers everyday.

Then, and only then, can they truly understand the obstacles their employees face. That will make it much more difficult to throw employees under the bus.


How to Stop Employees From Survey Begging

We've all experienced survey begging.

Sometimes, employees offer an incentive. My nephew was recently offered free food in exchange for giving a fast food restaurant all 10s on their survey.

Other times, employees try to pull on our heart strings. They tell customers they'll get in trouble if they don't receive a good score. 

My friend Halelly recounted a recent experience taking her car into the dealership for service. "The (service advisor) coached me in person when I got the car serviced and has now sent me this email too."

The email warned Halelly that she would be getting a survey from the dealership and possibly the manufacturer. The advisor wrote:

We would greatly appreciate your time to complete the surveys. Anything other than all 10's is considered a fail.

This post explains why employees engage in survey begging. It also explains how you can stop them from this annoying habit.

Survey Begging Defined

Here's my definition of survey begging:

Asking a customer to give a positive score on a survey by explaining how it will directly benefit the customer, the employee, or both.

Here are a few examples:

  • Offering customers discounts in exchange for a good score
  • Telling customers a bad survey will get you fired
  • Displaying "We strive for five" or similar signs
  • Directly asking customers for a positive survey score
  • Ignoring actual feedback that's not attached to a positive score

Side note: this definition is a first draft, so I welcome your feedback!

 

Why It's a Problem

Survey begging causes two problems.

First, it's annoying. Customers don't like being begged and cajoled into giving a survey score. This practice reinforces the perception that companies aren't really using voice of customer data to improve service.

The second problem is survey begging can cover up real service issues by artificially inflating scores. Customers might start spending less or stop doing business with a company entirely, without the company ever understanding what's causing the problem.

In other words, survey begging defeats the purpose of using a survey.

 

Why Employees Survey Beg

It's all about incentives.

Employees engage in survey begging because they have a clear incentive to achieve a high score or a strong incentive to avoid getting a low score.

Some employees have bonuses tied to their average survey score. This incentivizes them to ask customers for good scores because those positive surveys are literally adding to their paycheck. A slightly negative, but truthful survey might prevent an employee from earning her bonus.

Other employees can face disciplinary action if they receive too many low scores. One automotive service advisor told me he only pushes the survey to customers he thinks are happy because he could lose his job if he gets too many low scores.

Survey begging happens in many industries, but it's a particularly big problem in the automotive sector. Here's a great article on Edmunds.com that explains why.

The bottom line is if you want to stop the begging, you need to remove the begging incentive.

 

Getting Rid of Incentives

Many customer service managers are reluctant to get rid of survey incentives.

They operate under the false assumption that employees need these incentives to be motivated. There's a mountain of evidence that shows this isn't true. In fact, the number one motivator for customer service employees is being able to help their customers.

I wrote about a great example of this in my book, Service Failure. The Westin Portland was achieving consistently high guest service scores. Then General Manager Chris Lorino explained that part of their success came from a resistance to implementing survey score incentives. 

Instead, the hotel made guest service a core part of each associate's job. Here's an excerpt from the book:

"Associates coach and encourage each other to deliver high levels of service that will help them achieve their (guest satisfaction) goals. The hotel's leadership team regularly discusses guest feedback with the associates and encourages people to share ideas that will improve service even further."

Other managers are concerned that eliminating incentives makes it difficult to monitor employee performance through survey scores.

The problem is survey begging artificially inflates survey scores, so you end up rewarding employees who are best at begging, not best at service. 

A better approach is to use survey feedback to manage behaviors. For example, if an employee frequently gets surveys saying he is a little abrupt, you can coach him on ways to create a better impression.

Surveys can be a valuable tool for assessing and improving customer service. But, they also have some drawbacks like survey begging. 

This short video explains a few other challenges.