Jerry Osteryoung: Customer service must be judged on a relative basis

November 8, 2013 

Ask your customers to be part of the solution, and don't view them as part of the problem. ~ Alan Weiss, Ph.D.

So many firms are starting to understand how important it is that they know how their customers evaluate the customer service that they provide. It seems like every day we all get multiple inquires about the quality of service rendered.

Take for example Delta Airlines which every time I travel with them - which is often since there are few alternatives out of Tallahassee - I get a survey asking me to evaluate the service I received. How I evaluate them, however, is a function of both my experience on other airlines as well the specific trip about which they are inquiring. Too often, companies that send out surveys do not effectively evaluate how the person evaluating them has or will evaluate their competitors.

With customer service surveys, it is not just about the questions dealing with the specific firm. What is most important is making sure each firm is looking at the right material and coming to accurate conclu

sions when judging their customer service.

Take, for instance, the Net Promoter Question (NPQ), in customer service surveys: "Would you recommend our business to your family or friends?" This is considered the gold standard of questions, and the response firms typically want is, "Strongly Agree." If the firm does not get that response, they take it to mean their customer service is not what it is meant to be -- at the very least, with that individual customer.

The problem with this approach is that you are not looking at the results in a relative framework.

For example, let's say we have two customers, Jim and Jane. When we look at Jim's scores compared to how he evaluates other firms, he gives all of our competitors a "Strongly Agree" as well. However, Jane gave us a "Strongly Agree" while giving our competitors a much lower score.

What this tells us is Jane really sees our customer service as outstanding and, for her, it differentiates us from our competitors. Jim, on the other hand, has trouble seeing any real difference between our competitors and us.

So what does this mean? Simply stated: Getting positive responses on your survey does not necessarily mean you are doing a great job. You must go one step beyond this and ask your customers their thoughts about your competitors. This additional insight lets you know if your customers feel the service you provide is better or worse than your competitors. In this example, just by looking at the NPQ from Jim and Jane we would think we had absolutely great customer service but by digging deeper we find out that Jim's high score just is not valid and should not be used to evaluate the quality of the services we provide to our customers.

A simple way to dig deeper is to ask the NPQ as it relates to your competitors to find out how your customers feel about your service in a relative manner.

Now make sure that when you ask your customers to rate your service, you are also asking them to evaluate it against their experiences with your competitors. It is important to know how they perceive your service relative to that of your competitors.

Jerry Osteryoung, a consultant to businesses, is the Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship (emeritus) and professor of finance (emeritus) at Florida State University. He can be reached by email at

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