How to Annoy Your Client without Really Trying

By: Charles H. Green

Ed Koch was one of the more popular mayors of New York City. Governing from 1977 to 1989, his famous catch phrase was, "How'm I doing?" It signaled his willingness to tackle problems head-on by getting real data right from the source.

Unfortunately, business in the digital age has taken a good idea and flogged it to death. As an article in The New York Times recently reported:

"…requests for feedback, like relentless tugs on the sleeve, now seem to come with every purchase, every call to a customer service department and every click of a mouse that is followed with a pop-up ad pleading with users to take a survey about the 'Web site experience.'"

It's time to speak the truth: customer satisfaction metrics are not an unmitigated benefit. We are well past the crossover point. In fact, customer satisfaction measurement efforts have, ironically, become a detriment to customer satisfaction.

Check Your Inbox

Yes, there are data on the problem. But first, check your own situation.

  • Scan your email for the phrase "your recent …" to find emails from hotels, transportation companies, and online retailers. How many of them did you send to your trash folder?
  • Have you stayed at a hotel lately? Did you fill out the satisfaction survey?
  • When you called your bank, did you elect to "stay on the line to participate in a survey?"
  • When you called your cell phone company, did it annoy you that the respondent ended the call by saying, "May I say that I provided you with excellent service today?"

If you're like me, you have stopped filling these things out almost entirely, just as the number of requests to fill them out has increased. The net effect is almost certainly a negative for the requesting companies.

The New York Times article on the subject says one small survey company that conducts and analyzes on-the-spot electronic surveys, says it completes 175,000 surveys every day in the US. And it's getting easier every day for every company to do its own surveys online.

The Harm of Over-Measuring

In sub-atomic physics, the Heisenberg Principle states that one cannot measure both mass and momentum at the same time. The act of measurement alters the measurement of the thing being measured. It's an apt metaphor for customer surveys in the business world.

Is over-surveying a "victimless crime"? I don't think so. As currently practiced, it destroys trust and lowers brand value. Here's how.

Imagine that you as a client or customer are approached by someone in a position of influence in a company and are earnestly asked for your opinion about the business. The more powerful that person and the less programmed their questions, the more you will be inclined to answer—and to answer honestly and richly. Such an interaction may even increase your positive feeling about the company.

And of course, the reverse has the opposite effect. If you want to annoy your clients and customers, automate the process. Make it impersonal. Disallow white space answers in favor of forced multiple-choice responses. Hire people unrelated to the company to conduct the survey. Don't give respondents any context or results.

What's the harm of this kind of measurement? Rather than attempting to measure it, try a thought experiment. Imagine a personal relationship—a romantic relationship or one between friends. If one party occasionally asks, "How'm I doin'?" it's flattering. It means the person cares enough to talk about the relationship.

But if that same person repeatedly asks the same question, in great detail, force-fitting the answers into pre-programmed categories so as to generate and analyze patterns, it becomes clear that the questioner doesn't really care at all about the relationship. In fact, it becomes clear that the questions are all about the questioner, not the person answering or the relationship.

In the Trust Equation, this translates into high self-orientation, and it is a major killer of trustworthiness.

Business relationships are inseparable from personal relationships. The more we strip the humanity out of them, the more we depersonalize the customer relationship. To ask "how's it going" in an impersonal way is one of the ultimate ways of showing cynical detachment and lack of caring. It is trust-destructive at the outset, and becomes brand-destructive if carried on too long.

Why Do We Do It?

It's no small matter, this business of over-doing metrics. It is embedded in a lot of assumptions about business best practices.

  • There is a simple belief in business that "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it." A moment's reflection should give the lie to that claim: there are dozens of ways to manage that don't require much in the way of data. (Think love and fear for starters, move on to managing by walking around, and throw in public praise for another.) But the belief is mindlessly chanted nonetheless.
  • Measurement is easy. We forget how massively the invention of the electronic spreadsheet in 1979 changed the ease of using metrics. And, of course, the Internet gave another dose of steroids to the ease of data collection.
  • Measurement is impersonal. It can be bounded, controlled, predicted, analyzed, and pre-defined. Open interviews with real people, by contrast, require messy interactions. That requires much more skill. (You can also manage compensation by blaming the customer rather than making real decisions).
  • Measurement scales. The importance of scalability has increased as the Internet has driven business global, and there's no doubt that metrics allow ideas to be macro-enabled and micro-sliced.

These reasons are a mix of good and bad, but mostly bad. The next time you're tempted to over-survey your clients, think again. What are you really going to do with that data? Is it worth a trust-eroding interaction? Is there a different form of interaction that could turn the impact positive?

Charles H. Green is a Contributing Editor of RainToday and a speaker and executive educator on trust-based relationships and trust-based selling in complex businesses. He is the founder and CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates, and he is the author of Trust-Based Selling and co-author of the classic The Trusted Advisor and its practical follow-up, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook. Charles can be reached at

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