OPINION7 September 2010

Respondents are customers

What can bad customer service teach us about bad respondent experience?

A few months back we published a diary of my time spent completing as many online surveys as I could for a month. My main conclusion was that the respondent experience was, generally, pretty dreadful.

It seems pretty obvious that researchers should be treating respondents like customers – in fact they should be treating them even better, since respondents don’t really get anything out of it taking part – they’re essentially doing your company a favour.

But then it occurred to me that customer service is hardly without its problems. Everyone has their call centre horror stories, and poor service increasingly seems to be the norm, not the exception. I began to wonder whether these two phenomena – poor service for paying customers and poor treatment of research respondents – had similar origins.

Funnily enough James Surowiecki of Wisdom of Crowds fame has a piece in the New Yorker in which he asks why customer service is so bad.

“Most companies have a split personality when it comes to customers,” Surowiecki writes. They might talk about service being important, but because unhappy customers usually don’t complain, businesses can continue treating customer service simply as a cost centre. “It’s tricky to quantify the impact of good service,” he adds.

This results in a gulf between companies and customers – most companies think they provide “superior” service, while only a small proportion of their customers think they do.

Other problems are that most companies are differentiating on price, because that’s what people really want (luxury goods makers, for example, find it fairly easy to provide good service). Surowiecki also believes many companies have an excessive focus on trying to attract customers at the expense of retaining the ones they already have.

I wondered whether Surowiecki’s explanations might apply to the way research respondents are treated too. Let’s see how his ideas would translate:

It’s tough to measure ROI on respondent experience, so it’s treated as a cost centre
We know plenty of market researchers who make their livings measuring ROI, so it can’t be that hard. But we can also believe that there are many firms who haven’t seen the light on this one, particularly end clients and research agencies who buy sample from external providers, so don’t have to worry so much about annoying panel members anyway.

Companies believe they’re providing good experience even when they’re not
In our experience, researchers tend to believe that while their own company has quality under control, everyone else doesn’t. They can’t all be right.

Price is the real differentiator – service comes a distant second
The key point here is that in research, the price is paid by the research client, not the respondent. A buyer will pay close attention to the price they pay – how it might have felt for someone else to complete the survey is a somewhat less tangible concept.

Companies focus on attracting respondents but not retaining them
Panel companies seem to be getting better at this, but they can’t control everything. Agencies (whose names respodents are less likely to recognise) and end clients (from whom respondents are unlikely to receive multiple surveys) have less to lose from offering a poor experience.

I’m not sure I buy all of Surowiecki’s explanations of why customer service is so poor, but it’s interesting that when we apply his arguments to respondent experience, a pattern emerges: a poor experience results when none of the various players involved in research takes responsibility. Respondents, clients, agencies, panel providers, and the industry as a whole all have different priorities, but if they were to talk to each other and work together more, they’d find plenty of common ground, and they’d all benefit.

Unfortunately, this might mean having some difficult conversations – Annie Pettit’s argument that agencies should “refuse to launch surveys that are too long, too boring, too badly worded”, is an example of one player taking responsibility for the whole experience. But saying no isn’t always easy.


12 years ago

Access panels need to act as the keepers of their ecosystems by penalizing and even declining to field long questionnaires. Unfortunately, because of the fierce competition in that market, barring joint action, it is hard for any single vendor to say no. Because panel customers are always going to prefer dealing with vendors who don't put up such controls, this is unlikely to change.

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12 years ago

Nice follow-up to the original article Robert and a very relevant comparison. I recently described this challenge as the "holy grail" in terms of getting stakeholders from every stage of the research process together and in unison but the frustrating thing is that it should be easier than we are making it. Certainly many MR agencies now are integrating more closely with sample suppliers and we are seeing a convergence in methods and practices which are starting to see the survey experience for participants rise to the top of research priority lists. The point you make about price for me however is the most striking and probably to many degrees, at the crux of the matter. The asset might technically belong to the panel owner but it should be deemed just as valuable (if not more) by the researcher. No participants, no feedback.

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12 years ago

All very good points. For me, the key issue is your last one - communication generally runs from client to agency to access panel provider to respondent. While the chain will be shortened in some situations, this lack of contact between respondent and end user is likely to continue. With no clear ownership of the process, there needs to be some intervention - perhaps a public facing opt-in promise (but then, will respondents care, so long as they get their incentive?) I suppose a near comparison would be omnibus surveys. While they're generally still long and boring, the agency is able to exercise some control over the process, so that they're never *too* long or *too* boring.

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