This post got me thinking again about Net Promoter Score (NPS). It discusses in some depth several of the issues raised by reliance on NPS, but I have a more fundamental issue that usually receives short shrift: NPS is not actionable.

Digression: what is NPS? “The Net Promoter Score is calculated based on responses to a single question: How likely is it that you would recommend our company/product/service to a friend or colleague? The scoring for this answer is most often based on a 0 to 10 scale.” (Reichheld, Fred; Markey, Rob (2011). The Ultimate Question 2.0: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer-Driven World. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Review Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-1-4221-7335-0).

I first ran into NPS when I was managing worldwide customer feedback programs for several major corporations including about a dozen GE businesses. It was suggested that we could do away with a lot of our detailed survey questions and the focus groups we were conducting, and just ask this one question. (Or maybe two, as some suggested asking about “overall quality” and “likely to recommend” and combining the results.) The overall intent was to support Six Sigma (6σ) efforts.

The problem with NPS, especially as related to 6σ, is that it absolutely does not provide actionable data. Think of NPS as a parent’s thermometer used to diagnose a sick child. It can confirm that something’s wrong, but from there the number of maladies (“defects” in 6σ terms) correlated with a high temperature is very large. Without further information as to precisely what’s causing the high temp (i.e., other symptoms), and what should be done to cure the illness, attempts at treatment are unlikely to alleviate, and might even to exacerbate, the sickness.

Moreover, asking a customer any question in a survey creates an expectation that their response will result in positive action being taken to better serve them; so simply asking about “likelihood to recommend” without followup as to “why” is more apt to harm than help the relationship. Any question asked in a satisfaction survey should be designed to support to specific action to better serve the customer.

As elegant and appealing as reducing the customer relationship to one question may seem, it is simply not enough.

So, if you have a dashboard monitoring client satisfaction across various customer segments, by all means include NPS as one of your Key Performance Indicators (KPI). But never ask the NPS question without a series of followups to find out what is driving the satisfaction and/or loyalty, and what should be done to maximize those real drivers of the health of your business. Knowing your child has a fever tells you little about how to help her/him.