Dear Car Companies,

I won’t be filling out your satisfaction surveys today.

It isn’t that I don’t want you to know whether or not I’m satisfied, and why. Car Company #1, I’d love to explain that your service department did a fine job taking care of my car, and even washed and waxed it while I waited, and that I didn’t mind all that much having had to wait an extra few minutes because the guy who was supposed to tell me my car was ready got stuck on a phone call.

Car Company #2, I’d be happy to explain that your salesman did his best, but needed more training on your new models … and that the training you did give him about making sure we knew how to handle the car’s nifty electronics resulted in his taking more of our time than we really would have liked.

But I can’t. Your sales representative (CC2) and service representative (CC1) explained the rules to me clearly: Either I give them a perfect score, or you give them a failing grade.

Why would I participate in a sham like this?

Look, there are four “metrics fallacies” — four ways using metrics can make a business worse. You must employ an army of analysts. Haven’t any of them explained these to you?

I usually charge good money for this, but just this once I’ll explain them to you for nothing, if you promise to pay attention. The fallacies:

  • Measuring things wrong.
  • Measuring the wrong things, whether you measure them right or wrong.
  • Failing to measure something important.
  • Extending your metrics to individual employees.

You botched #4. But then, a lot of companies botch #4 because a lot of business executives seem to assume that if something goes wrong, it must be someone’s fault.

I guess it’s good they’re measuring all cases, not just the problem ones, because that implies they’re also assuming that if something goes well, someone must deserve the credit.

But they botch it because (I guess) they think their employees are so dim they can’t figure out how to game the metrics to their advantage … like, for example, letting customers know that anything less than a perfect score will land them in a world of hurt.

Here’s a hint: If they are that dim, you’re hiring dim employees, which is a seriously bad idea, especially for the employees you’re putting in front of your customers.

Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t that I think you shouldn’t pay attention to how your employees are doing. Quite the opposite.

The employees you decide to hire — how you choose them, how you train them, how you do your best to keep them, motivate them, and promote the best of them — they’re the single most important determinant of your success. I’m confident of this because I’ve watched outstanding employees succeed in spite of bad processes, substandard tools, and execrable managers, just as I’ve watched disgruntled employees get mediocre results in spite of having the best process designs and tools at their disposal (I didn’t add “great managers” because if they had great managers they wouldn’t have been disgruntled).

What you have to understand is that metrics don’t report root causes. They report symptoms. Unless, that is, you have a predefined list of potential root causes and monitor them all.

But that isn’t what your customer satisfaction survey is doing. The poor schmuck in the service department you’ve asked me to evaluate didn’t do anything wrong. He was stuck, having to choose which of two customers he had to dissatisfy — the one on the phone or me. Why would I give you any ammunition to shoot him with, when the problem, assuming this counts as a problem, was that you had the same person answering the phone and dealing with in-person customers?

And why would I give you ammunition to shoot the salesman with, when the problem was with your sales training program?

Tell you what. Why don’t you send me a new survey? This one would assess my satisfaction with your customer satisfaction assessment process. I’d be happy to fill it out. You could use the results as the ammunition you need to shoot yourself.

Okay, that was mean. It’s just that I’ve written books about this, I’ve given speeches about this, and (now pay attention — this is important) I consult about this, which means that if you had been paying attention, you wouldn’t have made this mistake and my bank balance would be higher.

It’s an outcome that’s known in some circles as a “win/win.”



Robert Lewis

President, IT Catalysts, Inc.