Donald B. Stephens is a 30-year senior customer service engineer. In this post, he examines why customer satisfaction surveys aren’t just about getting a perfect 10.

The other day I received a phone call from a woman at the garage that services our truck. She was very kind and wanted to know if our recent appointment for a brake job and oil change had been a pleasant experience. I assured her that everything was working fine and that we were happy with the service. She seemed pleased and I was happy to hear from her — until she added: “You might get a survey from the manufacturer asking about your experience, and we would be very happy if you answered it positively.”

It was then that I realized that she wasn’t really concerned about our truck; she was trying to avoid bad customer survey results.

Survey Saturation

You can’t order a burger at the drive-thru without being asked to go online and fill out a survey these days. Every product you buy, every service that you pay for — they all want you to “please, fill out our survey.” Survey overkill has the American consumer apathetic and annoyed with questions about how a business is performing.

More often than not, satisfied customers (like me in the above example) are ignoring the survey onslaught, while dissatisfied customers continue to fill them out with vigor. This uneven sampling has caused many businesses to try new ways to beat what I’ve dubbed “the bad survey blues” (e.g. calling the customer to convince him to give a good review).

But companies that try to beat the blues are missing the point. They need to focus less on the low numbers and more on the expectations set, the source of the negativity and the actions they take to resolve things. Are companies handling surveys wrong all along?

Here are some ways to avoid the blues and take a hard look at satisfaction surveys in a constructive light:

1. Don’t Set Unrealistic Expectations

Many companies use a sliding scale with a ’10’ meaning very satisfied and a ‘1’ meaning very dissatisfied. This scale allows for a ton of open interpretation. Many customers would reserve that ’10’ for a day when they also won the lottery. I’ve had customers tell me that they gave me a ‘5’ because that is average and that is how I performed (and all that they expected). At most companies, alarm bells go off when something as scary as a five comes in on a survey. Part of the problem arises when those at the top set unrealistic expectations such as this one: “We’re a company that demands 100 percent customer satisfaction with every interaction!” Sure, it sounds great, but no company will ever meet that expectation and will create undue pressure by saddling employees with an impossible burden. A business only needs to know if a customer is satisfied or dissatisfied. Leave very satisfied to preachers and politicians.

2. Deal with the Bad

What a company does with a negative satisfaction survey is perhaps more important than the survey itself. In many situations a bad survey becomes a hammer that falls hard on those working closest to the customer. Those who get hit the hardest live in constant fear of a bad survey, which can lead to desperate measures. I’ve encountered service technicians who have coached, bribed and even threatened their customers to fill out a good survey. The phone call I received was innocent enough, but it was still an attempt to sway (and possibly alter) my true thoughts on the company that serviced my truck. This is not how a company should handle surveys. Instead, companies should dig into the root causes of bad surveys for any flawed processes that might inhibit customer satisfaction.

3. Find the Source

A lot of times the poor mark has nothing to do with the service or product being surveyed. I’ve had customers give me a bad survey because they were unhappy with our billing department, but there wasn’t a place on the form to give them a bad mark. It is important to get to the bottom of a bad survey, so that the real source of dissatisfaction can be uncovered and corrected.

Surveys are barometers. Nothing more. They are a small measure of customer satisfaction (remember, most satisfied customers don’t do surveys) and an indicator of opportunities to improve customer relations. A company that uses them correctly will dig in deep to find the true reasons behind negative surveys, correct any mistakes that are uncovered, and accept that you can’t please everyone every time. Only then will companies be able to shake the bad survey blues.