Do you find the title of this article shocking? Don't. In 25 years of arm-twisting corporations to focus on customers, what I've seen from many, if not most, is that the score is the end game. First it was garnering a great "satisfaction" score, then one for "loyalty," followed by "experience." And recently, "Would you recommend?" has become the holy grail of customer measurement.

Is your commitment to customers real—or a jockeying for position on the latest customer scoreboard?

The target keeps changing names—but the game's the same. The name of the game should be "giving customers a memory and experience so great that they'll want to repeat it." But, sadly, the game is all about getting that score—that darned customer score—any way possible.

Whereas talking to customers and really listening to what they have to say and taking action on it is what's really the powerful stuff. Later on in this article, proven ways to make this happen—but first, a recap of what happens today.

Let the begging begin

Companies have spent more time chasing the elusive "score" than doing anything, different for customers. And here's why: It's the score that's on the scorecards. It's the score that's tied to people's compensation, and it's the score that determines whether people get that bonus to pay for little Johnny's braces or that trip to Disneyland or sorely needed funds to subsidize college tuition.

So when the score gets tied to peoples' compensation—they'll make sure the customer treatment that it's measuring will improve, right? Well, maybe. But they will, for sure, do everything they can to make sure they get a good score. Often it's the score and how to get a better one that's focused on more than customers or their treatment.

And here's the kicker: Companies are actually ticking off customers in the process of collecting that survey score. You know the drill. Here's how my most recent survey experience went, complete with a healthy bit of gaming in the quest to garner the best score possible: "Hello, we're calling from XYZ auto dealership where Mr. Bliss recently had his car serviced. Is Mr. Bliss in?" I tell them no, he is not. "Well, do you know how his last visit to our service shop went?" "Yes, I know a little bit about it," says I.

That was good enough to satisfy the survey taker who then launched into the litany of questions, wanting to know each time, "would your husband rate his experience as being completely satisfied?" Obviously the fatted calf went to those with the most 'top box' responses—to those with customers who were the most completely satisfied—whatever that means.

Having declared that my husband's experience was pretty darn good (and who knows whether he would have said so for sure?), this next lovely question was asked: "If our corporate headquarters calls, would your husband again say that he was completely satisfied to these questions?" "Probably" said I.

However, all that prompting and prodding to garner a "completely satisfied" rating was really grating. It did tarnish my opinion of the dealership. Three days later, the phone started ringing off the hook from the automotive corporations' survey company. This time, I didn't answer the phone. A check of our caller ID shows 15 calls have been placed to ask Mr. Bliss (or me as his proxy) to confirm how "completely satisfied" he was.

The big corporate fake-out

The local dealership had passed on my husband's records to receive the corporate survey. And getting a good score ranking from corporate had even higher stakes. Going to that exotic trip for dealers was attached to how many "completely satisfied" answers they received, as well as various other perks and privileges from the auto maker. These ranged anywhere from getting the newest models first to getting customer leads to getting to pick a new toaster out of a catalog. The better the score, the better the prize.

Corporations, in their quest to drive customer focus, have attempted to improve customer experiences by attaching things people want to the attainment of a good score. Pavlov himself couldn't have set up a better behavior-modification system. The sad news is that the behavior modified is how to get the customer on the phone to give a better score. Any time businesses ask a customer how they're doing, it should be for the purpose of doing something with that information. But that's just not happening today. Heck, companies are so exhausted and numbed from customer survey collection that just getting the report out is considered a great feat.

And that's where it lands—in a brick—that big four-inch report of survey data lands at the feet of the people who are supposed to read the data, analyze it, and understand how it relates to them; weep about it a bit; and then go fix things for customers. But beyond the rigor of running surveys, there is not much rigor around doing anything with what's learned.

No sacred cows: Next up, gaming the NetPromoter scoreboard

There is a frenzied optimism on the simplicity and potency of the new NetPromoter concept, according to which understanding whether a customer would recommend you is key to the score. But beware; if your end game is simply pushing for the greatest NetPromoter score—you're completely missing the point.

As with any customer feedback system, it's what you do with the information that's key. What will you do when a customer won't recommend you? Will you find out why not? Are you collecting all of that information from dissenters and identifying the big things that are broken in your business and fixing them? Are you identifying and holding those who have declared that they would recommend you close and building stronger relationships with them? Have you spent the time to find out what they really love about your business and then pinpointed which part of your operation and in what geographies those actions are coming from? Have you created systems and processes to reliably replicate those loved experiences across your enterprise?

Yes, it's early in the game on this scoring concept. But just know that at the end of the day this may just be the latest of your corporation's customer scoreboards. And just like someone we become tired of dating, your company may find it's time to change from even this shiny new dating partner (err... measurement system) when the sizzle is gone (read fake hoopla) and no movement occurs in the count of customers who would refer versus those who would not (because nothing was changed from what you could have learned about the business), and a new measurement system arrives to take its place.

Become a 'Customer Action Hero'

Becoming a hero to your customers is more about reliability than it is about heroics. You don't have to leap tall buildings in a single bound. If they could just count on you to always deliver, to always be there, to fix what ails them, to really care... well, things would be different. You'd have customers who desired the experience you deliver so much that they keep coming back again and again for more. And recommend you? No prodding necessary. They'd be singing your praises from the rooftops.

Yes, customer listening is as old as the hills. Unfortunately, as my mother used to tell me, most corporations' ears are full of wax. All the money in the world that you throw at that survey won't do any good if there's not a commitment to do something about what you hear. If you're really serious about becoming a Customer Action Hero, then start doing these things:

  1. Find out: Is the customer commitment real, or is it "Memorex?" Remember that brilliant ad campaign from the Memorex audiotape people, who challenged viewers to discern whether the voice they hear bellowing was real or a Memorex audiotape of the sound? Well, you've got to get down to the nitty-gritty with your executives to find out whether they will put their skin in the game to demand accountability for fixing those things that are getting in the way of your customers' repeat business. If they won't, I won't say it again... but your company may be a you-know-what (read this article title again).

  2. Elevate customer counting as a strategic priority of the business. Right now, you can probably recite where you are in meeting your sales goals. Do you know as much about your customer goals? These are the counts of customers in and customers out, a clear accounting for customers by revenue group, customers who renewed with you and why, and customer referrals. This is about elevating customer metrics into the strategic stratosphere—to make the knowledge of customer gains and losses as widely and wildly understood as if you made quarterly sales goals. In my book, Chief Customer Officer, I call these the "Guerrilla Metrics," because you need to essentially wage a campaign to power the customer metrics onto the strategic agenda of your business.

  3. Prioritize and fix the top 10 things bugging your customers. To a large degree, sometimes inactivity from the survey data exists because people don't know what to work on. Certainly in reviewing the data, everything seems broken. Whenever I ask customers questions, I always want to ask them how we are performing, but also how important the area is to them. That way, you can assemble a triage system for the issues you've heard from customers. Focus on fixing the high-priority, low-performance items and on ensuring that you stay steady on those items.

  4. Conduct a monthly customer loss review. On a monthly basis, gather a list of customers who have left, then assign your executive ranks to call 5-10 of them each to find out why they left. Compile the customer profitability information about those customers who left as well as any other information so there is a picture painted of the flesh-and-blood customers or accounts that felt they couldn't do business with you any longer. In the meeting, discuss what the issues were that were driving customers away and build an action list with names and dates attached to it. I can guarantee you that the memory of hearing customers expressing their pain from the treatment you gave them will inspire people to get their act in gear.

  5. Use public accountability to drive the action. Public accountability can be the promised land for getting action on what you hear from customer surveys, customer complaints, and feedback from the Web. Simply designate a room forever more as "The Customer Room." On the walls of the room, map the guerrilla metrics, the trending of your customer issues, what you are hearing from customers on the web and the top 10 operational metrics related to the biggest issues your customers want fixed. On a quarterly or monthly basis, your President should walk the room, standing before each category of information. The words spoken: "Why is this happening, who will fix it, and when?" When the data is organized by region and/or operational area, I can tell you from experience, the friendly horserace of not wanting to be last in performance and wanting to be first will push people to move from talk to action.

Note: Content for this article was taken from Jeanne's book Chief Customer Officer: Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action, based on her 25 years as leader of customer commitment at Lands' End, Allstate, Coldwell Banker, Mazda and Microsoft.

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image of Jeanne Bliss
Jeanne Bliss is the founder of CustomerBLISS (, a consulting and coaching company, and the author of Chief Customer Officer: Getting Past Lip Service to Passionate Action.