I’ve banged on for many years about the weird cult that is Net Promoter Score, a magical metric with organisational healing powers.

In one number, it is claimed, the mysteries of business can be unlocked. Ask your customers their likelihood to recommend you and wealth and prosperity will be yours.


The world of recommendations was very different when NPS first came along. in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the internet was becoming important but still informational. Social networks and user-generated content were yet to explode. Phones were used to telephone people. People still went to shops. Surveys were expensive to create and administer.

Roll forward and we transact the previously unimaginable things online on our smartphones. We bank. We book holidays. We book tables in restaurants. We order our groceries. We buy spectacles. We consult with medical professionals. We communicate incessantly with one another on social networks. We like and share. Surveys are everywhere.

Not only that, but by making a single metric a goal, which many NPS-focused organisations undoubtedly have, strange things happen. These are described in my two favourite laws of social science. Goodhart’s Law and Campbell’s Law.

Goodhart’s Law states: “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.”

Or to put it another way, make a single metric into a goal and it’s meaning gets distorted to make it meaningless. In the case of “How likely are you to recommend us?” as an NPS score, whilst asking that question might once have been a reasonable proxy for whether someone actually would recommend you to someone else, today we are asked it so often that it has become meaningless.

Campbell’s Law states: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Or to put it another way, make a single metric into a goal, people will game it to hit the targets.

This happens in all sorts of ways, from the unscrupulous or over-targetted employee actively asking customers for high scores, through to the timing of surveying being at points when a positive response is most likely (say, for example, when you have just fixed something for a customer).

All in all, I really struggle to understand today why anyone places any trust in NPS.

Even more so because in our Internet and smartphone-enabled modern existence there is a very obvious thing to do that would be so much better. Rather than asking people how likely they are to recommend you, why not simply ask them to recommend you?

Lots of organisations of course already do thing through referral schemes. In fact the organisations who I feel most betrayed by are those that I have used such a referral scheme to recommend who then ask me whether I would recommend them. You have hard, empirical data to show that I would, and that NPS question will pretty much guarantee that I won’t again. It shows that they neither care about data nor their customers.

But why not, instead of the survey, simply send out regular requests which make it easy for your customers to refer you to a friend or colleague? You get actual data. And you get a referral too. This seems so glaringly obvious.

Now of course what might be going on is that the people who ask the questions in the surveys have no interest in driving new customers. That would be a worry. It could be that the organisation doesn’t actually want new customers. That would also be a worry. It might even be that the company doesn’t believe that anyone would recommend them without incentivisation, in which case WHY ARE YOU ASKING YOUR CUSTOMERS THEIR LIKELIHOOD TO DO SOMETHING YOU DON’T BELIEVE THEY WILL DO?

The power of the Internet and smartphones have left us in a place where surveys are two a penny. You cannot move without being confronted by another needy, badly designed customer survey that asks stupid questions to collect data that is observed rather than acted upon.

But that same power of technology gives organisations low or no-cost ways to actually prompt and observe beneficial customer behaviours. One day people will wake up to that opportunity.

One thought on “Just recommend!

  1. Early gmail invites have shown your theory to be overwhelmingly true so I too wonder why it isn’t more widespread.
    Perhaps it’s any of the reasons you cite.
    Perhaps it’s that the technology for that is not so easily available to the business.
    Perhaps they don’t have a digitally-aligned customer acquisition strategy (i.e. modern, “new media” Internet practices rather than non-Internet practices that they have simply transferred)?
    I’d be really interested in some deeper research about what’s going on here.
    Is there a competitive advantage to be had?

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