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Why customer satisfaction bonuses can become an obsession that damages brands

Malcolm Pitcher - Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bill Gates was once a man so obsessed with computers that he developed a personal PC operating system that changed the world of computing forever. He is now a man obsessed with giving away his fortune to help the world’s poor and needy. 


Obsession can be a very good thing, but in some businesses, there is a current obsession that is putting brand reputations at risk. This is the obsession of earning a bonus from customer satisfaction scores.


To understand what’s going on, we need to take a lesson in survey evolution

When a company first begins to measure customer satisfaction it typically does so with a certain amount of nervousness and anticipation. Senior managers worry, “What will our customers say about us?”, “Will we be able to cope with negative feedback?” “How will we perform against our peers in the market place?”

The first results come in. Everyone takes a keen interest in them, scores and comments are examined in great detail and plans are made to help the scores improve in the future. It’s both exciting and involving. Everyone talks about customer satisfaction and pleasing the customer.

This happy situation can go on for months, even years, and then somebody utters the fatal sentence.

“Why don’t we bonus our staff to deliver even better results?”

At this point interest in the survey can turn into an ugly obsession

An obsession in which the poor customer can end up as a commodity whose sole purpose is to deliver a bonus to a member of staff. This is what can happen:

  • * Customers are offered incentives to give good survey scores

    • * Customers receive great service until their completed survey is received and after that they become second class citizens. You’ll know when you have this obsession in your business when you discuss a poor survey with your staff and hear comments like “it’s too late to effect the survey result!” Which means, “What’s the point in wasting my time with this customer, because I’m not going to benefit from it”

  • * Customers are shown completed survey forms so that they know which boxes they are expected to tick

  • * Managers tell staff to break the rules, which means that all those wonderful new customer service processes that were developed when the first surveys came in are largely ignored
  • Customers are given sob stories by staff members ("If I don’t get my satisfaction bonus I won’t be able to take my family on holiday")

  • * Staff pay no attention to the completed surveys or what the customers say beyond looking at the questions that affect their bonus.

* When there is a bad survey staff will seek to blame anyone they can for the bad result, or even the company that carries out the survey

The irony is that the company executive thinks their bonus is a great idea because their scores are improving, and as a result, they may bonus even more. But of course the scores are improving, the poor customers are effectively being beaten into submission, or given incentives to do so.

Thankfully not every company is taken in.

Some companies are getting wise to what is happening and are putting brand before bonus
Porsche GB for example, recently noticed that it’s customer satisfaction scores were rising “suspiciously fast” After some investigation, it uncovered that dealers had been artificially driving up scores by offering freebies and other perks to customers.

Porsche concluded that, left unchecked, this behaviour would damage the brand as quality customer service is replaced by gift-giving. To remove the temptation to artificially improve scores, Porsche now only allows its dealers access to customer comments rather than the scores.

And by doing so, they’ve removed the obsession to cheat.


  • Customer satisfaction surveys start with good intentions
  • Then someone mentions paying bonuses and things can change dramatically
  • Staff behaviour becomes focused on bonus not customer, where the customer can become a commodity
  • Some companies are realising the potential damage this can do to their brand and as a result are focussing more on customer comments

Next step

Take a good look at your customer satisfaction scores and ask yourself are they really the result of hard work, staff and process development or have they come from an obsession with getting a bonus?

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