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Chairman of Marks & Spencer plc

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NPS – and the Law of Unintended Consequences

We might live in a digital world but we have analogue brains. So whilst our smartphones deliver the facts to the palm of our hand, the way that our brain perceives those facts is coloured by how we feel. Customers, colleagues, we are all the same, the way we see things has as much to do with soft fluffy factors as it does with the unvarnished truth. And when, as shoppers, we are asked to rate our most recent experience, it is the emotional that drives our assessment. This should raise concerns about the ability of tools like Net Promoter Score to measure and incentivise staff behaviour. Emotional is short term, rational is long term. The two may be in conflict.  

The long tail of performance in any retail chain means that it’s hard to obtain optimal staff performance across the entire network. And what do we mean by optimal? It’s not so long ago that in contact centres there was a drive to shorten customer call times (to reduce costs), the unintended consequence of which was that staff terminated calls prematurely (to achieve their bonuses) forcing customers to call back two or three times to complete their required service.  The metric would have shown shorter calls and more of them indicating more sales activity. But where were the extra sales? And at the same time staff bonuses would be on budget because they were doing the right thing and so costs would be under control.  Or not.

Such call centre management techniques had the opposite effect to that which was intended.   Despite the best of intentions, customer satisfaction was harmed and total costs per transaction were driven up rather than down.

But, in these enlightened days we know better don’t we? Many organisations who have introduced Net Promoter Score have demonstrated their commitment by linking staff pay to NPS in the belief that this will drive the right team behaviours and will in turn increase sales and keep customers coming back for more.

However, we need to consider the impact of such a scheme at the coalface, in the moment of truth. In the iterative exchange between colleague and customer, emotion drives behaviour and behaviour drives emotion. In the following three scenarios – what impact do we think that providing a reward against customer feedback would have?

  • Scenario one – in a financial transaction, the colleague has a whole list of compliance statements that they must make the customer aware of but the customer looks at their watch and shows their displeasure.
  • Scenario two – In a busy banking hall a floor-walker is attempting to filter the counter queue and move customers with simple transactions to automated equipment which will be quicker for the customer and cheaper for the bank. An irate customer in the queue remonstrates with the colleague and suggests in the strongest possible terms that “Rather than messing about they get behind the counter and serve people.”
  • Scenario three – the customer is considering the purchase of one of two competing vacuum cleaners. The colleague realises that with their fondness for pets the customer would be much better buying the more expensive cleaner which will do a significantly better job with dog hair but the customer shows a strong desire to buy the cheaper one which they will almost certainly be dissatisfied with and want to return.

These three scenarios highlight the dangers of incentivising colleagues around customer’s immediate wants in a face to face environment. In each case the customer’s perception; the way that they will feel about performing the transaction, will be negatively affected by the colleague “doing the right thing”, for the organisation and for the customer.

A superior model must be to focus on building the longer term relationship between colleague and customer, striving for “Trusted Adviser” status rather than a relatively crude measure of immediate customer satisfaction. This would imply that a mix of skill, experience and the right interpersonal techniques should be part of the mix that is rewarded alongside a pure customer loyalty score.

There is no question that NPS helps us to understand how customers feel about their latest engagement with our brand but as a motivator of colleague behaviour in that moment of truth its only part of the story. If NPS addresses the customer’s short term emotional wants then this must be balanced with an assessment of the colleague’s ability to address their longer term rational need and to “nudge” them through knowledge, skills and advice towards behaviours which will benefit both the customer and the brand.

And that’s how to ensure that our customers really are being served.