How does customer feedback affect attitudes and behavior?

How many times per day are you asked to provide feedback on a product or service? Like this app? Rate it in the app store! How is our website? Please fill out this satisfaction measure. Thanks for your recent purchase. Do you have time to fill out a short survey based on your shopping experience? While this kind of data can be useful in service optimization and design, these methods can result in unexpected outcomes.

More specifically, soliciting customer feedback can often result in the ‘measurement effect’. This is the finding that measuring attitudes can affect subsequent behavior (positively or negatively). Therefore, how you go about measuring attitudes is essential. In this article, I want to discuss some of the ways in which polling customers can affect their attitudes and behavior.

Evaluation Expectations: We are more critical when we expect feedback solicitations

In many of our consumption experiences, we can sense an upcoming evaluation. Amazon orders, hotel stays, even an Uber ride; we know that we will be asked to provide our satisfaction and feedback afterward. What effect does this have on our attitudes? Consumer research indicates that it probably awakens the critic within us, making us more negative about the upcoming experience.

In a series of studies, researchers demonstrated that when customers expect to provide feedback on a particular experience, they were ultimately more negative (Ofir & Simonson, 2001). For example, in one study an electrical utility company contacted their customers twice, one month apart. During the first conversation, they told half of the customers that the firm would ask for their feedback in the follow-up call. Consistent with the authors’ expectations, forewarning people about the survey led to evaluations that were more negative.

Indeed, it may be difficult to completely eliminate expectations for feedback. As noted in the introduction, we encounter them so often surveys may feel inevitable. However, there are instances where firms may unnecessarily warn us about the impending request. Asking at unexpected moments (so long as you are not interrupting) may be more likely to yield honest and not overly critical responses. This way you can be certain you’re getting a more honest reflection of the customer experience.

The ‘Mere Measurement Effect’: When measuring an attitude affects future behavior

Termed the ‘mere measurement’ effect, researchers have also learned that asking customers about their future intent can actually change their purchase behavior. For example, in one study, asking customers about their future car purchase intentions actually increased the probability that they would purchase from the same brand they currently owned (Fitzsimons & Morwitz, 1996).

The reason for this, as was tested more thoroughly in a subsequent paper (Morwitz & Fitzsimons, 2004), was as follows. Soliciting purchase intentions increases the accessibility of attitudes that you hold. Although I don’t think about it all the time, I prefer Coke to Pepsi. Asking me about my soda preferences makes this differentiation more accessible. As a result, when I next go to purchase a soda, I will probably more easily recall Coke as my preference. As has been shown in the literature, people are more likely to act in line with their attitudes when they are more accessible (Fazio, Powell, & Williams, 1989).

The lesson? Soliciting feedback from customers can be great if they already hold positive existing attitudes towards your brand or product. You are simply making it easier to retrieve these attitudes next time they make a decision, increasing the probability they will side with you. However, what if your customer has had a miserable experience? Asking them about it may actually keep that attitude fresh and accessible, and consequently drive them away. Of course, firms often want to know both the positive and the negative, but they should be aware that these observations could have behavioral consequences.

Open positive: How you structure your survey can affect long-term sales

All too often, when companies solicit feedback they do so in the form of close-ended questions. This make take the form of a star rating system, or a checklist of attributes that customers evaluate on a numerical scale. However, researchers recently looked at how shaking up this system can help improve purchase intentions (Bone et al., 2017). In a longitudinal study, in partnership with a large US portrait company, the authors developed an experiment. After each transaction, the firm encouraged customers to participate in a phone survey by offering a discount on future services.

The researchers then sorted participating customers into two conditions. Half of the participants completed a standard close-ended survey. The other half received the same survey but began slightly differently. In this latter group, the authors asked customers to reflect on the positives of their last experience. The result? Tracking these customers over the course of the next year, the researchers found that those asked to reflect on a positive element of their last interaction spent 8.25% more than the control group!

Why is this? First, people’s memories are highly malleable and susceptible to all manner of influences. When we retrieve a memory, we are not necessarily retrieving a fixed recollection, but we instead reconstruct the event to some extent every time. Asking respondents to frame it in positive terms then provides a lens through which the subsequent answers are viewed. Verbalizing the response in an open-ended manner requires greater effort, thereby strengthening the effect.

When and how to ask for feedback

When and where to consider these findings may depend on your goals. If your goal is purely on an informational basis, you may want to refrain from using a positive open-ended question to begin with or only targeting customers at moments when they are most positive. This will allow you avoid the types of mere measurement bias that may artificially inflate customer ratings. That said, in doing so you also risk yourself to making negative attitudes more accessible, and ultimately affecting long-term customer behavior.

References

Bone, S. A., Lemon, K. N., Voorhees, C. M., Liljenquist, K. A., Fombelle, P. W., Detienne, K. B., & Money, R. B. (2017). “Mere Measurement Plus”: How Solicitation of Open-Ended Positive Feedback Influences Customer Purchase Behavior. Journal of Marketing Research, 54(1), 156-170.
Chicago

Fazio, R. H., Powell, M. C., & Williams, C. J. (1989). The role of attitude accessibility in the attitude-to-behavior process. Journal of consumer research16(3), 280-288.

Morwitz, V. G., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2004). The mere-measurement effect: Why does measuring intentions change actual behavior?. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 14(1-2), 64-74. Chicago

Ofir, C., & Simonson, I. (2001). In search of negative customer feedback: The effect of expecting to evaluate on satisfaction evaluations. Journal of Marketing Research, 38(2), 170-182.