Employees, systems, and Net Promoter

Customer experience surveys shouldn’t give me a choice between whacking hard-working staff and approving corrupt and busted systems. Let me tell you what’s wrong with your systems, not your people.

It’s nearly always the systems that are at fault for problems

If there’s one thing I learned from the brilliant Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine, authors of the seminal customer experience book Outside In, it’s that it’s nearly always systems and not people who are at fault for customer experience failures.

Here’s a recent example. I rented a 12-foot truck from U-Haul. It had 130,000 miles on it. It was loud, rough-riding, had a loose and rattly linkage somewhere, and featured a crappy transmission that had no idea how to handle coasting down a hill, which for some reason caused the engine to approach redline RPMs. And when I rolled up the back door at the end of the trip, it slid all the way up and jammed at the top, making it impossible to close again.

For reasons far too tedious to explain, this was my third U-Haul truck rental this year. They’re crappy vehicles, but this was the only one that I worried would leave me stranded in the middle of nowhere with a truck full of beds, dressers, couches, lamps, and beloved stuffed animals.

As I knew they would, U-Haul sent me a survey. And then I had a problem.

No, I was not happy with my rental.

But I was very happy with the people I worked with.

The guy behind the counter who rented me the truck was helpful and cheerful, even offering to help me get the truck out of the narrow space it was wedged into. And the guy who checked me back in was willing to ignore that it was 45 minutes late and said he’d be happy to take care of the jammed-open door — they have a crowbar for just such situations.

The survey asked, “Would I be happy to recommend this location to someone else?”

Hmm. I would certainly tell them they were in good hands with the people there. But U-Haul’s customer call center is overloaded and can’t help with this crap. The location was inconveniently located. The truck was terrible — but it was registered in Arizona, even though the place renting it was in Massachusetts. So whose fault is that?

I expect that U-Haul squeezes their maintenance budgets to the bone and that I bet there wasn’t too much the mechanics could do with a truck driven 130,000 miles by people who didn’t care how they abused the engine.

Is that the location’s fault, or the fault of U-Haul corporate?

I know enough to know the difference. But U-Haul’s net promoter survey doesn’t. The only choice I have is to endorse the employees and ignore the terrible policies, or to complain about the crappy experience and have them take it out on the employees.

This isn’t an isolated problem

If you love your doctor but the health provider’s scheduling system is always screwing you up, is that a good experience or a bad experience? Who gets the credit and who gets the blame?

If the Amazon delivery driver is forced to work so fast that she doesn’t have time to check that the delivery is to the right doorstep, is that her fault, or Amazon’s?

If your cable guy is a miracle worker but the company equipment he installs consistently breaks down and causes glitches, do we dump the blame on the cable guy?

If your Uber driver is cheerful and fast, but didn’t get enough time to get between trips or enough money to maintain her car, whose fault is that?

Sometimes, as with U-Haul, you’re put in the position of judging people who don’t even work directly for the company. If the company makes unreasonable requests of its contractors or franchisees and then uses consumer surveys to punish the ones who don’t cut corners — well, do we as consumers want to be a party to that corrupt bargain?

The nearly universal Net Promoter question — “How likely would you be to recommend this provider to a friend or colleague?” — is a blunt instrument. It may determine whether customers are happy, but it doesn’t tell you why they are happy or unhappy.

Companies with employees or contractors using this question to rate their performance ought to have a good look in the mirror.

Using Net Promoter to rate workers in impossible situations only encourages cutting corners. Unless the company provides the necessary resources for success, it’s a nasty way to evaluate workers or partners. It makes me want to lie, so as not to punish the workers who are trying their best to serve customers. And if I’m lying on the customer survey, how does that help anybody?

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  1. You have to blame the company. Employees aren’t making these types of decisions in a vacuum. It’s sad that you can’t differentiate between the two. The idea that frontline employees, much less independent contractors, exert any control over major business decisions is laughable.

    1. There are situations in which employees and contractors should get a poor survey rating. Surly service people, those who fail to explain policies clearly, and those who do their jobs incompetently deserve a poor rating – while those who are knowledgeable, kind, and effective deserve a high rating. My problem is when the employee is trying to to do their best within a system that undermines such efforts.

  2. I once asked a very competent customer service rep how these surveys work. Would the rep get blamed if the problem was the systems’ fault? She seemed super-grateful for the question and said that, yes, bad scores would count as dings against her and wouldn’t go further than that.
    So the surveys make me hate the companies because they haven’t designed something sophisticated enough to fix the situation. Maybe posts like this will put a dent in U-Haul’s insouciance

  3. Within a year, the bottom rack in our brand new Whirlpool dishwasher was rusting. We got the warranty service provider (not Whirlpool, but a third party) in, and the serviceman said, “Actually, I can see that the TOP RACk is starting to rust, too. I’m going to order both for you.” It took a LONG TIME to get the parts, but when they finally came in, the warranty service provider contacted us, made an appointment as soon as we could accommodate them, and the same serviceman installed the new racks. The survey asked, in effect, “Are you happy with your Whirlpool appliance?” The answer was “No,” but there really wasn’t a way to praise the service company without praising Whirlpool, as well.