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  • Paul Hobin

70% – The Perfect Satisfaction Survey Score

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Illustration by Black Salmon/

Congratulations! Your client satisfaction surveys have topped 95% two quarters in a row. Unfortunately the numbers may provide a poor insight into the real client experience and what they’re thinking.

Too many service providers, particularly internal providers like procurement, AP and HR, survey clients with a design that intentionally or unintentionally guarantees high marks regardless of how clients feel. I’ve had the following experience – have you?

I’m invited to complete a satisfaction survey and I gladly accept. A recent negative experience means I have something of value to tell the service provider. Most of the provider’s service has been good and I answer the questionnaire with correspondingly high marks, waiting for the questions covering the negative issue.

They never arrive. I unexpectedly reach the end of the survey, having unwittingly given them an A+ with no opportunity to explain what went wrong with my recent interaction.

Former Nordstrom chairman Bruce Nordstrom says, “If you really listen to your customers, they’re never happy – they’ll let you know what you’re doing wrong – and it just forces you to get better.”[i]

If your client satisfaction surveys are returning 95% – or worse, 98% – you have only a 2 to 5% window of opportunity to learn something useful. If the client with something important to tell you fails to hit that narrow window – probably because the survey doesn’t even point them to it – you learn nothing. You don’t get better. And whatever you’re doing wrong, you keep on doing wrong. Nordstrom’s quote continues: “[Nordstrom gets] so much press about our service and all this stuff and we start believing it and then we think we’re better than the customer. And then we’re dead right there.”

“Satisfaction” in the 90s is what we want our clients to feel. But it’s not the result we should be designing a survey to deliver. Surveys can only help us get better by delivering the “bad news” about what needs to be improved. And if we believe Bruce Nordstrom, there’s plenty that our clients want to tell us, if we’ll only let them. If we don’t, “we’re dead right there”.

[i] Transcript of interview with The Reporter; Stanford Graduate School of Business, 1991. As quoted in Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built To Last (New York: HarperCollins, 2002) pp 188-189

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