The Ultimate Question

Is this. Has anyone actually read this book?  Or, engaged Fred Reichheld or Bain & Co.on a consulting engagement?  Now clearly there are more than a few that have.  The book is #7,260 on Amazon’s sales ranking.  Behind The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at #6,799.  But still, not bad.

So why am I even raising the question when this topic has been pretty well exhausted?  Its because there seems to still be an increasing number of customer service practitioners talking about NPS and staking a significant portion of their customer service time and resources on collecting it.  At the same time, oversimplification of the concept is epidemic, creating a clouded view of the company’s performance vis-a-vis the customer’s perception.  And, like I’ve experienced in responding to over 30 customer satisfaction surveys this year, I’m having a hard time finding anyone that knows how to create specific action from the information; beyond the quant jocks at behemoths like American Express, P&G; and BearingPoint.  Ok great! So, Mr Jones is a net promoter.  Now what? 

Sure, there’s a one sentence definition.  “Net Promoter is a management tool that can be used to gauge the loyalty of a firm’s customer relationships”.  But, come on.  Mr. Reichheld didn’t spend the rest of the 210 pages of the book waxing about migratory habits of Emperor Penguins (March of the Penquins – awesome movie! I’m a naturalist.  Forgive me).  There is some heavy stuff in here; serious statistical analysis.  Not to mention, since originally published in the 2003 Harvard Business Review article, there has been much research that has poked gaping holes in the statistical validity of the theorem.

So why, 8 years later am I finding more and more organizations asking customers variations of the question.  It seems every question on every one of those surveys I’ve answered is based on an eleven point scale.  Not that those questions have anything to do with net promotion, but now that scale has taken on a life of its own and has been adopted for every conceivable type of question.  

When it comes to the customer experience and loyalty, don’t you really want to know how you connected with that individual customer, at that particular time, during that single interaction?  Isn’t that the point?  Not, “hey can you go pitch us to your friends”; like we’re running some sort of multi-level marketing program. (disclaimer: I believe in the power of word-of-mouth)

How about “Did we delight you and exceed your expectations today?”  Think about the actionable information available from the answer to that question!

We need to take a cautionary lesson from Deep Thought, the super computer from The Hitchhiker’s Guide who oversimplified the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything with his answer “42”.  Net Promoter Score is not the end all, be all key to understanding customer loyalty.  As in Deep Thought’s case, the ultimate question is often ultimately meaningless.


  1. Super post Barry. You are right. The ultimate question should be, "Did we deilght you and exceed your expectations".

  2. Great post. Connecting with customers is crucial. If you don't connect with your customers, someone else will. When you focus on that connection, they will naturally promote you. But it takes a focus on the customer in front of you first, not the gain that you will get in the long run.

  3. Thanks Stan. I was so inspired by your Purple Goldfish concept, I referenced part of your comments from my last post in a guest post over on Ted Coine's blog. Thanks again for stopping by.

  4. Kristina,
    Conceptually, that is one of the issues I have with NPS. Like in any sales setting, you have to earn the right for the referral. To me the referral will come if you do all the right things with that customer. Plus, in practical terms, if you are going to implement this concept, asking "would you be willing to recommend?" doesn't go nearly far enough. If you want to understand and measure your customers' positive word of mouth, what you really want to know is "will you recommend?" "Did you recommend?" and "Did that person purchase based on your recommendation?"

    Interesting footnote (another reason why I think NPS is flawed statistically) I saw some stats recently that showed, on a 7 point NPS scale, close to 70% of respondents ranked the question a 7 (most likely to recommend) and another 20% ranked a 1 (least likely) Any scale that produces 90% of responses at the farthest fringes is flawed.

    Thanks for your comment

  5. Net Promoter Score is the biggest bunch of snake oil to come to the world of management in 25 years. There's so much wrong with the metric, it would take a couple of hours to just begin to list the reasons. Here's a blog post that summarizes some of them:

  6. ok Ron. now that you went there. you cut through my b.s. and said what I really feel. The angle of this post what that, given the assumption that NPS is valid, practitioners are abusing the heck out of it. That being said, I 100% agree with you. I don't believe it is a valid measure in the first place (can I say that here? who's reading this? Whatever. its my blog and I have a disclaimer) So, yes. I agree!

    As simplistic proof, my comment above yours on recent stats I saw. NPS is yet another tool that allows companies to drink their own Kool Aid. "Our NPS is 54%!" or "Or quality scores are 98" Really?

    Thanks for saying it straight.

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