Jonathan Sockell

We often think of cheating in terms of actions that violate high priority ethics, but in smaller, less dramatic situations, the act of cheating is really just a gratification of our human desire to pursue the path of least resistance to obtain things we want.

The connection between incentives and cheating should set off alarm bells for anyone running a customer feedback program. Paul Root Wolpe, who leads Emory University’s Center of Ethics (and is a bioethicist with NASA) describes some of the factors that drive cheating:

“On the one hand, people tend to cheat in response to desires and incentives they want…And then there are structural pressures, when they feel under pressure for their careers or income.”

Getting high survey response rates — by reducing the friction between a customer and a completed survey — is absolutely essential. But that’s only half the equation of a successful CEM program; the other half is making sure that frontline employees actually engage with the feedback they receive in order to improve their performance and the overall business. When employee engagement is sub-optimal, companies will sometimes create incentives to catalyze the process. The idea is that, by setting performance benchmarks and rewarding individual employees based on satisfaction scoring, a company will be able to:

  • Get employees to buy into the feedback program

  • Encourage employees to embrace improving customer experience

  • Create a better experience for customers

  • Retain more customers and attract others

When companies do this, they think what they’re doing is putting in place mechanisms to get more of what they want: better employees and happier customers. Simple, right? Reward the good behavior, and get more of it. Even the etymology of “incentives” indicates that you’ll be “setting the tune.”

Unfortunately, research shows that, in doing so, employers might not be gratifying the parts of people most intrinsically tied to motivation. SDT — Self-Determination Theory holds that “we are most deeply engaged, and that we do our most creative work, when we feel that we are acting according to our own will on behalf of goals we find meaningful.” By focusing on something extrinsic — like a financial incentive for good performance scores — employers won’t actually see the types of improvements they are hoping to encourage, explain experimental psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. They say that these types of rewards are only effective for the most simple tasks and not for the more complex work most jobs require. In these complex environments, incentives will create results that are “shallow and short-term” at best — and otherwise just opportunities to cheat or game.

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We discussed this at last summer’s Medallia Auto Industry Summit. In instances where compensation is often linked to customer experience scores, survey cheating by dealership employees becomes much more frequent. This most commonly comes in the form of fake surveys submitted by employees and prompting/manipulating/pressuring customers to give high scores. Not only could this activity cost companies tons of cash in undeserved bonuses, but it can paint a very misleading picture about the health of a company. The further removed corporate leadership is from the frontlines, the greater the danger in relying on falsified information.

Manufacturers are looking for ways to alter incentives to encourage a feedback stream that is unadulterated. From our Auto Summit group, a favorite line emerged: Focus on the store, not the score. The idea behind this is to reward best practices and improvement, rather than total survey scores. Options to do this include rewarding behavior like how often employees close the loop on surveys or how well feedback is actioned upon to create positive change.

Though adapting incentives this way can help reduce cheating, it’s unlikely, especially the larger the company, that changing the carrot will completely eliminate some folks’ inclination to reach the carrot as easily as possible. As long as there’s a carrot, there’s going to be some cheating, and you’re going to need a way to identify it.

All discussion of vegetables aside, we wanted to help you with this identification process. To do so, we developed an anti-cheating engine that ensures the integrity of the customer survey process by identifying and flagging any surveys that might have been filled by internal employees to influence their loyalty scores. The proprietary engine uses a combination of complex rules to identify and flag questionable responses.

Monitoring for this kind of behavior can be a good backstop. But the research suggests that a culture of intrinsic motivation — where your employees are driving towards providing a great customer experience because they realize it’s the right thing to do (and because it’s actually enhancing them as professionals and people)  — is going to be the best way of creating strong workforce and delivering your customers a great experience.

For tips on how to incentivize (when it’s needed), check out: Is Your Survey Program Using The Right Customer Incentive?

Photo credit: excitingsounds