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I Want Five Stars to Mean Five Stars

Something Has Gone Wrong with the Modern Customer Service Survey

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 6:39 PM

It was an innocent — even endearing — touch when I received a delivery today. The delivery person left a sticker on the bag thanking me for my patronage. The sticker depicted five stars, a not too subtle hint at his desire for a five star review. And he deserved it — the items came quickly and correctly and in perfect condition. But, it got me thinking about how weird our view of customer service surveys has become.

A few years ago, checking out with the “service advisor” at my local car dealer after an oil change, he asked for five stars on each point of the follow up survey I would get from Volkswagen. He explained that if he received anything less than a perfect score on each point, he would end up losing his bonus.

When did four stars — above average — become a punishable offense?

Dutifully, I did as he asked, but it felt a little awkward. He had done a fine job, but was the very cramped waiting room with daytime television blaring really a five star waiting room? If anything, the room seemed designed to make customers seek the refuge of sitting in the new cars in the showroom instead. I suspect that was not by accident.

Since that time, I have heard countless employees or contractors share the same sort of experience: their pay, which depends heavily on a set of incentives, gets seriously docked if they fail to rack up perfect reviews. So, five stars it is.

The service I receive needs to be pretty much horrid before I want to dock someone’s pay who has been helping me. I am ok with the idea that my rating might factor into someone’s pursuit of a special bonus for truly excellent service, but please do not saddle me with the guilt of cutting someone’s pay just because they only gave me “above average” service.

No doubt, many of you who read this will have had the same experience. Getting beyond even the absurdity of, say, basing an auto service advisor’s pay on how nice of waiting room the place has — something rarely under said person’s control — does anyone benefit from this “five stars or else” approach?

Now, I get wanting a perfect score. In school, if I got an A-, I wanted to know why and would pester the instructor on how I could improve to avoid ever getting that abomination again. But, when I did get it, the “punishment” was commensurate: I still passed the course just fine because an A-, after all, is still well above passing. I didn’t fail the class for only getting four stars.

The problem is that companies with a desire to say they want to provide fantastic service are probably encouraging service mediocrity by making it hard for customers with any empathy to give useful feedback. Did my auto dealer get helpful points on where things could improve? No, because I couldn’t give the A- or B of a four star review, much less note where their services were merely “average” — by definition, service roughly on par with the industry — because I didn’t want to dock my service advisor’s pay to make the point.

Likewise, when I order via a delivery service and something comes damaged that the shopper should have spotted, I will report it as damaged, but I will still usually give five stars for the same reason. I do not want to be responsible for docking someone’s pay because they were not stellar, merely good.

The exceptional workers are hidden within a sea of fine to above average workers getting faux five star reviews. Companies get feedback that is, for all intents and purposes, pass or fail and next to useless.

We’d be better off with something more akin to the Michelin Guide where getting a star at all means something really special.

If someone who has influence over his or her company’s surveys reads this, please consider resetting the scale and seeing four stars as above average rather than worthy of punishment. A genuinely given 4 star review might be better praise of your associate than a guilt fueled set of five star reviews, after all.

And, I can go back to giving feedback without feeling like I have to consider daytime television blaring around me an “unparalleled” experience. If your surveys indicate otherwise, don’t question the tastes of your clientele — just smile and realize you must have some pretty empathetic customers.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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