Client Feedback Tool
  • Great Expectations – Theory of a Feedback Scale

    Posted on August 7th, 2009 Ryan Suydam 3 comments

    Surely you’ve taken a survey at some point in life with the feedback scale everyone seems to love.  It goes something like this:

    Please rate my performance:

    1. Very Dissatisfied
    2. Dissatisfied
    3. Neutral
    4. Satisfied
    5. Very Satisfied

    You’ve also seen variations (Very Poor/Poor/Neutral/Good/Very Good).  It seems that this scale is what everyone uses.  But why?  When we started our Client Feedback Tool back in 2004, we figured someone much smarter than us must have devised that system, so we used it too.  We quickly discovered why NOT to use such a scoring method.

    In our first year, 96% of the feedback we collected arrived at the top level.  While this sounds like a good thing – you then must remember that the purpose of feedback is improvement.  If your answer scale eliminates any room for improvement 96% of the time, you will never be able to fine-tune or tweak your processes.

    Further, the tone of the words used is rather uncomfortable.  The scale sets up a pass/fail scenario, and most people feel uncomfortable giving a score less than “Very Satisfied.”  Likewise, receiving feedback on the mid-range feels merely mediocre.  People giving feedback then tend to give higher scores than they would otherwise, just to avoid confrontation and/or hurt feelings.  Rather than a bell-curve distribution of scores, we saw a small cluster of “Very Dissatisfied” responses, a huge quantity of “Very Satisfied” responses, and very little in between.  Yes/No questions reveal the same problems.

    Also, the scale says nothing about your clients‘ perspective and their perceived value of what was delivered.  Every good or service consumed is measured against a perceived value gained.  If you aren’t measuring against that value, the measurement is inherently inaccurate.  I may not be very satisfied with the quality of a $3 fast-food burger, but I still chose to order it, and will do so again.  Likewise, I may get the best steak ever at a classy restaurant – but never go back.  Why?  It all comes down to understanding my value expectations.

    What we really need is a way to measure our performance against the expectations of our clients.  Each client has a unique set of expectations, based on their perceptions of value received for the fee being charged.   All clients have different backgrounds –  different sets of assumptions based on their individual experiences.  As such, no two clients ever have the same expectations of you – even if you are selling each client the same service at the same price.  What matters is that you meet or exceed each clients’ individual expectations on a consistent basis.

    So, if one client expects to be very satisfied with your work, and he is, then you have performed at a “centered” level.  You met expectations.  On the other hand, if a client expects to be disappointed (airline companies are famous for this), a very middling but quite adequate service may exceed expectations.  Let’s look at our burger and steak to understand this more clearly.

    If I go to a burger joint, I expect disappointing food.  But, it’s cheap and convenient and fills me up.   Therefore, I make a rational decision that, though the food quality is expected to be bad, the value provided is worth the $3 I spend.  Now, it just so happens that when I order, they just took the burger off the grill, they just got fresh shipments of lettuce and tomato, and they put the perfect amount of mayo on.  In fact, I’m not terribly disappointed by the burger after all.  It’s not what I would call good, but it does exceed expectations.  If they always made it like this, I’d be willing to pay $4, instead of $3.

    Tonight, it’s my birthday and I want to go out for a nice dinner.   Staying with our beef theme, I choose the nicest steak house in town.  The 12 oz Filet Mignon costs $37 a la carte.  I expect this steak to be perfect.  For that price, medium rare better be medium rare on the spot.  There should be no stringy sinews.  The flavor and texture should excellent.  This is, after all, the most expensive steak I’ve ever bought – it better be one of the best.  Instead, it’s ever so slightly overcooked.  There’s one stringy corner, costing me 1 oz of the meal.  And, it needs salt.

    Now, given the choice, I’ll take the not-quite-perfect Filet Mignon over a not-actually-disgusting burger.  However, when you factor in my expectations given my value judgements, the cheap burger exceeded expectations while the steak was merely acceptable.  On the other hand (using the “old” feedback scale) I was Neutral about the burger, and Very Satisfied with the steak.

    If we look at the restaurant managers in both cases, understanding where I stood based on my expectations is the more critical business information to have.  The fast food manager now knows freshly made burgers with fresher condiments are worth more.  He can decide to manage towards this goal, and increase his prices accordingly.  Or, he can make the decision to keep prices (and quality) low.  He can evaluate the business case for each, identify which maximizes his profit, and be successful.

    The steak house manager, on the other hand, realizes his business is based on being the best, bar none.  He either needs to put additional quality control measures in place to justify the high prices, or he can lower prices, which would lower my expectations going in, and maintain his existing processes.  Either way, he is working to match the food he provides to the expectations I have, based in the value context.  If he fails to match his steaks to diners’ expectations, people will stop buying his steaks and the restaurant will have to shut down.

    A service business (architects, engineers, lawyers, etc) must make the exact same decisions.  Your fees are based on an expected value provided.  If you do not know what your clients’ expectations are, and how you measure against them, you are flying blindfolded.  Most professionals will use a combination of metrics to set their fees – usually based on what competitors are doing (and often that information is flawed and from limited sources).  However, if your clients expect you to be better than the competition, then you can charge more.  The perceived value is there.  However, the only way to know this is to ask.  You need to ask early, and then throughout the life of the project or relationship to make sure you are maintaining performance in alignment with their expectations.  Oh, and their expectations will change constantly.  Every time you deliver, new expectations are being made, adjusted, and tweaked based on perceived value and quality of your job performance.  You need to ask.

    Where does this leave us?

    • We must measure our clients’ perceptions based on their expectations.
    • We must measure constantly because expectations change.
    • When expectations are exceeded, continuing to perform at that level will become the new expectation.
    • Feedback must be comfortable to give and receive.
    • Feedback systems must be flexible enough to capture the subtleties of each expectation.

    To address these unique needs, our Client Feedback Tool utilizes a patent-pending feedback scale and ranking device seen here.  Feedback Slider

    First, notice that “Met Expectations” is in the center of the scale.  When someone first views a question and sees this scale, the slider is set in the center at 4.0 / Met Expectations.  This is where MOST feedback should occur.  After thousands of surveys sent using this scale, we now have data that more closely fits a bell curve.  Met Expectations is not a “C” score – it’s not a measure of mediocrity.  In fact, meeting expectations is GREAT!  You have successfully delivered a service that matches the value as perceived by the client.

    Second, the scale operates by dragging the slider up or down.  By engaging the respondent in a kinesthetic activity, they are forced to assess their ranking and decide where to move the slider.  On the “Satisfied/Dissatisfied” scale you have to select one of five buttons.  It’s just as easy to select an extreme score (Very Satisfied) as it is to select a centered score – so people tend to select scores on the two ends of the scale.  By requiring some effort to change the scale, people are inclined to change the score ONLY when they have a reason to do so.  Thus, if a score is provided at “Excellent” you know the client gave you that score with intent, and not just to complete the question/survey.

    Third, the scale is self-centering.  If you exceed expectations consistently, that level of performance will become the expected.  This allows for continuous improvement of your services.  If you consistently got feedback of “Very Satisfied” you have no room to innovate.  By constantly resetting in the middle, our scale gives clients the opportunity to repeatedly applaud innovations that worked well so you can incorporate process improvements over and over again.

    Fourth, the words we used are very comfortable for everyone involved.  Not only do the word choices at “Met Expectations” and above indicate a job well done, but even the first notch down, “Acceptable”, is not a “bad” word.  If something just barely missed the mark  – the performance was acceptable.  Good enough.  There’s no hurt feelings like you might have with “dissatisfied” or “poor.”  Going down, “Needed Improvement” and “Unacceptable” both are focused on the process used, not the person.  The results were unacceptable – not the person.  While strong action is needed to correct this course, we’ve tried to make it as easy and comfortable as possible to both provide and receive this kind of corrective feedback.

    Finally, our scale offers incredible granularity.  The slider can hit not only the 7 key markers, but any of 10 slots between each – a total of 61 possible answer values.  This makes it very easy for a timid soul to move the slider down to a 3.9 when he may be afraid to criticize.  Likewise, when looking at the breadth of a service, the nuances of what worked well really come out.  Life is full of shades of gray, and supporting that variety is critical if you want the most honest, accurate feedback.  With this scale, you can truly identify the little tweaks that can add up to top-notch performance.

    Overall, feedback is really very simple to do and do well, if you have the right tools and processes in place to capture good information quickly and efficiently.  Most feedback programs fail because they are flawed fundamentally in how feedback is collected.  A service professional that solicits feedback without focusing on the client, his expectations, and his value perceptions will not only get poor feedback data (if he gets any at all), but is missing a huge opportunity to discover what really makes your relationships work.  Armed with that knowledge, you can do the best work for your client, meeting his needs better than anyone else, and maximizing your own long-term prosperity.

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