Asking for Trouble

On the first day of your vacation, as you finish checking in, the hotel clerk hands you a customer-feedback form, smiles and wishes you a pleasant stay.

The routine may seem harmless, but according to recent research in consumer marketing, the hotel's management is making an important mistake. By requesting your feedback from the outset, it has lowered the level of satisfaction you're likely to experience and report.

That's the conclusion of a study published in May in the Journal of Marketing Research. Participants who expected to evaluate a product or service gave it less favorable ratings in nearly 90% of the roughly 20 studies the authors carried out. After surveying 100 customers at a software-service center, for example, the researchers found that individuals who had not been told that they would be asked for feedback had a mean satisfaction rating of 4.2 out of 5. Customers who had been forewarned were significantly less satisfied, with a mean score of 3.7.

It's possible that customers who expected to do an evaluation simply provided more-accurate feedback. But additional studies, incorporating variations in product quality and customers' expectations, suggested such was not the case. Instead, what the authors call “negativity enhancement” appeared to be the primary mechanism at work. Expecting to evaluate, they explain, makes customers more likely to focus on negative information because it is more distinctive and diagnostic —except when initial expectations are low. The belief that intelligent feedback should include constructive criticism also may encourage people to be on the watch for problems they would normally ignore.

It's an age-old issue, according to T.R. Rao, president of Milwaukee-based Market Probe, a research company specializing in customer satisfaction and loyalty. “Anytime you tell someone you're testing something, they'll act more intelligently than they normally would,” he observes.

Researchers can lessen the impact of that bias, Rao explains — for example, by forming a new sample for every survey and focusing on trends in data, rather than absolute levels. And of course, a hotel desk clerk could hand customers a comment card when they leave, instead of when they arrive.

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