Insights: AMA's digest of the latest findings from marketing's top
Usually, I have no hesitation in sharing research insights and implications. Well, unlike my norm, this post begins with some trepidation.
On the one hand, I have some powerful and practical research to share about getting customers to buy more. Wow, right? But, on the other hand, I have this uncomfortable realization that this research can be used for evil – well, maybe not evil exactly, but certainly for unwarranted influence and deceptive marketing insights.
So, here goes nothing!
Nearly all companies – large and small, B2B and B2C, and so on – solicit some type of feedback from their customers about their product and service experiences. Service companies, in particular, often solicit customer feedback immediately following a recent interaction or transaction.
Presumably, the goal of this feedback solicitation process is to get unbiased insight from customers about how the firm is doing, what good things it should continue to do, and what bad things it should seek to improve. These insights can then be used in decisions regarding product development and employee incentives.
But what if the questions you ask and the order in which you ask them leads to more positive feedback than is actually warranted? We like positive feedback, but we’d probably be better off avoiding such a course of action because the insights would be less helpful to achieving other customer feedback goals.
But what if these same changes in the customer feedback solicitation process also increase future sales? Now, we’ve got a problem. Because now we have this economic incentive to do something that actually undermines getting unbiased customer feedback.
Research that Creates a Customer Feedback Dilemma
And this is precisely the situation we now have based on research in the forthcoming Journal of Marketing Research paper, “Mere Measurement ‘Plus’: How Solicitation of Open-Ended Positive Feedback Influences Customer Purchase Behavior.”
Past research has shown that merely asking a customer to state an intention can influence the behavior that is the focus of the measurement. Building off this idea, the researchers from Utah State, Boston College, Michigan State, Northeastern, and Brigham Young University hypothesized that asking customers for open-ended positive feedback at the beginning of a customer feedback survey would put customers in a positive frame of mind. This positive frame of mind, in turn, would not only get customers to recall an experience more favorably, but it would also influence future customer purchases as these positive memories persist.
To investigate this possibility, the research team did experiments with the customers of a portrait studio retail chain and those of a B2B software provider. In each case, customers were randomly assigned to either receive a survey with only standard closed-ended quality questions (e.g., Please rate the cleanliness of the portrait studio) OR they were assigned to a survey with the same questions and also a new first question which asked for feedback on what went well on a recent visit (portrait studio) or what a user liked about a recent software trial (software provider).
In the retail study, with a total sample of more than 27,000 customers, the results revealed that completing a customer feedback survey (in comparison to those who chose not to respond) positively impacted sales from customers (both how often and how much was spent) over the course of the next year after the survey was completed.
And the customer feedback survey that began with a request for positive feedback gave a significant boost to sales even beyond mere survey completion! More specifically, customers who were asked for positive feedback up front spent an average of $143.16 in the next year in comparison to an average of $132.25 for customers who completed the survey without the positive feedback question. (And these findings are true even beyond past purchases, overall quality ratings, and other factors.)
The B2B software study led to similar conclusions. In this case, the customer feedback survey was sent to customers who had recently downloaded a free 30-day software trial. The survey was sent 18 days after the download and 3 days after that a promotional code for a 20% discount was sent to all trial users. The results showed that the average amount spent in the 30 days after the promotion was sent was significantly different for each of four groups of trial users. The average sales for each group were $8.85 (positive feedback solicitation group), $6.66 (closed-ended questions only group), $1.27 (chose not to participate in the survey group), and $0.17 (not sent the survey group).
Implications for Asking for Customer Feedback
So, what can we make of all this?
Certainly, the results reveal that soliciting positive feedback from customers can be powerful – even on the bottom-line. And yet few companies actively solicit compliments and praise from current customers. So it is certainly important to provide avenues and encouragement for positive feedback from customers.
However, I would personally caution against doing this in a customer feedback survey – unless it comes at the end of the survey. At the end of a survey, a positive feedback request will not impact prior closed-ended ratings and still allows the company to get unbiased insights into possible areas of improvement. Truth be told, I do not know if asking for positive feedback at the end of a survey would have any impact on future sales because the memory of the experience may be less swayed by a request at this point. Still, I cannot in good conscience recommend a positive feedback solicitation at the beginning of a feedback survey if this might lead to distorted customer feedback.
At the same time, the results do suggest that companies should also be cautious about asking customers to give negative feedback. The research did not look at negative feedback, but it does suggest that a request for such feedback at the early part of a feedback survey could also lead to biased insight and have a detrimental impact on future sales. That’s a situation we definitely want to avoid!
And, finally, the results should raise the awareness of marketing executives that care must be taken when making seemingly innocuous changes to how customer feedback is solicited – and also to be on the lookout for proposed changes that might be intended to manipulate customer feedback scores based solely on when and how questions are asked.