Is NPS Bad For You?

Strategic experience designer and author Aga Szóstek explains why your brand’s NPS (net promotor score) might not be as helpful as you think – and how finding your “edges” might be the key to real, actionable insights into your customer experience performance.

  • The reasons for fluctuating NPS can be difficult to understand – if you’re not doing anything differently, why is your score so unpredictable?
  • Random performance is often a result of random experiences, where brands haven’t first considered the experience they want to offer their customers.
  • By finding the “edges” or differentiators that you want to focus on, you can provide a unique customer experience and track your performance in each “edge” more concretely.
  • Seen this way, NPS can be the opening chapter of your CX story, but not the whole book.

Back in summer 2018, a well-known Polish bank saw a spike in its net promoter scores (NPS). Suddenly, according to the numbers at least, it seemed that everybody loved them and wanted to give them much better marks in the bank’s standard measure for customer experience. 

All the people in the customer experience (CX) team were overjoyed. But one thing troubled them: they hadn’t changed. So what had they done to make this increase happen? No matter which angle they approached this question from, they didn’t know. That’s when they brought me in to investigate. And we discovered something strange, yet obvious.

Krakaw, Poland. Photo by Jacek Dylag/Unsplash

Because something else was happening in summer 2018. It was one long, hot summer. The sun had started shining at the beginning of April, and it kept on shining till the end of September. Meteorologists confirmed what a strange year it was: temperatures were 2.5 degrees warmer than average. No wonder everyone seemed to spend their time lolling around in parks and drinking beer in squares.

So no wonder the bank was receiving such good NPS scores. It turned out the weather was having a huge impact on how people felt in general, and so when they were asked about the bank, well, their feelings got transferred into much higher NPS scores. 

By itself, that wasn’t necessarily a problem for the CX team. But what would they do when summer turned to autumn and winter and the temperature plummeted to -10C? They couldn’t expect to bask in the glow of weather-assisted NPS scores then. Besides the weather’s impact on the NPS scores, another thing was clear: the bank’s CX team needed something other than NPS to figure out if they were doing a good job. 

The Problem With NPS

It’s clear that NPS does a few things well: 

  • It gets CX a seat at the board table.
  • It offers you a feeling that you strategically influence your customer experience. 

But there are problems too:

  • It doesn’t help you make an informed decision about what kind of experience you want to offer.
  • It doesn’t integrate customer-centric action across the organization. 

Big generic numbers might work well for things like the financial success of your enterprise – more profit means that your company is selling more of what it produces, therefore it is gaining in value. However, they’re not always that useful when it comes to assessing customer satisfaction, because what contributes to customer experience is multifaceted – experience always is. Whether you do anything about it or not, your customers will have an experience of some kind: it might be good, it might be bad, but in most cases it will be random. 

Why? Because only a handful of companies out there consciously think about the kind of experience they want to deliver and whether it’s in any way unique. If you don’t know that, how are your customers supposed to figure it out? Therefore in most cases, the experience is somewhat incidental. 

You might think: but why is my NPS score fluctuating, then? These changes can be attributed to the overall increase of customer service standards in a given business domain. If standards increase, customers become more satisfied. Then they get used to this new standard, see it as the new normal, and don’t judge it as positively as they initially did. However, this doesn’t mean that the experience is consciously shaped.

Finding Your Edges

That amazing summer of 2018 found the bank I mentioned earlier facing quite a challenge. Each year they assessed the performance of their branches using the NPS survey. But that year the spread between the scores was less than .5%. It meant that the worst performing branches scored 92 (out of 100) and the best performing ones 96. Should they punish those who scored 92 and award those scoring 96? It didn’t seem right. The entire team was desperate to find a way out of this pickle. That’s why they called me. 

For some time I’d been working with the concept I call “edges”, named after the idea by Seth Godin. Edges are the differentiators you are willing to bet on in order to create a unique experience. The trick is to choose a few of them, and also the right ones. Why only a few? Because it’s hard to be awesome at everything. But what’s even more crucial is that if you have just a few aspects you are intending to be the best in the world in, you might actually succeed.

So how do you choose the right edges? Firstly, it’s good to listen to what your customers are hoping for when they talk about solutions within your domain. Do they hope for a little magic? Or maybe they would love to have more intuitive, more communal or more ecological solutions? Listening in to the dreams of your customers is a good starting point. 

Then you need to see whether your competition is already doing the same thing. If they bet on something you want to bet on, you will quickly find yourself spending far too much money for far too little gain. However if you choose a differentiator they wouldn’t even think of, you have a high chance of building an experiential advantage that will be difficult to clone. 

This was the case with the bank. They decided to select six edges – three pragmatic (such as being knowledgeable) and three emotional (such as being compassionate). We then created a specific metric for each edge.

What’s The Future For NPS?

The big question at this point was: what to do with NPS? Since NPS was the strategic metric for customer experience, they decided to keep it as a benchmarking tool and implement the additional measures we created together to help explain the NPS score. Not knowing how this idea would land with the executive level, they decided to test it for one year. Typically, in this situation a consultant such as myself would be the last to hear what happens – but not this time. 

A year later one of the workshop participants called me sounding quite ecstatic. The trial period for the new measurement had just ended and they had realised a number of things. Firstly, this tool they had created allowed them to see which edges they were truly differentiating on and where they were lacking. Next, they saw that these new metrics were not easy to game (like NPS), as customers were answering question after question without seeing the overall score. They were therefore able to see which aspects each branch was strong at and which they needed to develop further. Finally, they were able to connect the fluctuation of their NPS score with some real action, not only the sunshine.

Many people ask me whether I think NPS is a bad metric. I’m reluctant to see the answer as black and white. NPS is a great tool to build awareness of the importance of customer satisfaction and to elevate it to the executive level. It has positively impacted the overall level of service we are offered as consumers. And it has certainly helped to create an internal momentum for delivering a higher quality experience. So in a way, you can see it as a first evolutionary step towards creating services that are truly experiential. 

However, it’s also a crude measure that can lead you astray if you don’t know what kind of experience you actually want to offer your customers. Perhaps after almost two decades of NPS ruling how we see experience from a strategic perspective, it’s time to move on and become more specific as to what kind of experience we want to deliver – and then deliver and measure that.

About the Author

Aga Szóstek is a strategic experience designer and author of The Umami Strategy: Stand Out By Mixing Business With Experience Design. For the past two decades she has worked at the forefront of combining design, technology, and business. Her approach has inspired many organisations to bet on experiences as their market differentiator. When not consulting, Aga designs experiential tools called Seed Cards and co-hosts a podcast, Catching The Next Wave.

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