Sign up to get full access to all our latest content, research, and network for everything customer contact.

Call Center Week: Little Advocacy for Net Promoter Score

Brian Cantor

During the early portion of the 16th Annual Call Center Week, an attending delegate expressed surprise that such a small percentage of the organizations he encountered were using Net Promoter Score to measure their customer experiences.

On the one hand, the surprise made sense. When speaking about contemporary metrics, contact center thought leaders routinely trumpet the value of Net Promoter Score. By specifically assessing customer advocacy, NPS elevates measurement beyond individual transactions. It speaks to customers’ perspective of the overall brand experience.

On the other hand, organizational inertia has long proven to be an obstacle for contact center professionals. Initiatives identified as "best practices" more than five years ago continue to elude contact centers. That a popular contact center talking point remains more of a talking point than an action point should not stun anyone within the community.

As the Week progressed, however, it became clear that organizational inertia was not the only inhibitor. Numerous speakers and presenters also possess philosophical resistances to the metric.

Some points of resistance had emerged in previous thought leadership pieces.

Concern, for instance, exists over the fact that the metric is not a directly actionable one. Because it offers a holistic customer experience "score," it does not provide specific insight into what improvement can or should be made.

When improvement does occur, moreover, a business has a limited window into which initiatives actually drove the improvement.

The "fuzziness" of the math also weakens NPS’ efficacy as a contact center metric. The calculation is arbitrary, and it does not account for psychological and sociological differences in how customers assign scores (particularly across industry and region).

By allowing for disparity from company to company and industry to industry, NPS advocates serve to further devalue the tool’s usefulness. Today’s businesses are being asked to look across industry lines and "compete on the customer experience." Holistic customer experience scores, therefore, should present businesses with a more universal measure of success and thus more universal sense of motivation.

Call Center Week speakers and attendees also articulated more concerns.

Concern #1: Customer advocacy is not the final objective

To underscore a logical flaw associated with Net Promoter Score, speaker JC Quintana jokingly noted, "I may be a good husband to my wife. But she probably wouldn’t recommend me to other women!"

While Quintana’s comedic example is over the top, it draws attention to valuable questions: what drives customer advocacy? What does customer advocacy entail?

When touting the importance of the NPS metric, thought leaders often point to a linear customer experience progression. First, they argue, a customer becomes satisfied. When his satisfaction reaches a certain point, he becomes loyal. When his loyalty reaches a certain point, he becomes a brand advocate.

NPS, in their eyes, is therefore ultimate customer experience metric. It is more valuable than looking at "intermediary" metrics like CSAT and retention rate.

In reality, that progression is not at all guaranteed. Some satisfaction and loyalty will never manifest as customer advocacy. Some advocacy, meanwhile, will emerge before a customer has developed satisfaction or loyalty.

When it comes to the former, it is important to remember that advocacy is tied inextricably to brand identity. A brand recommendation, to an even greater degree than a follow on Twitter or a like on Facebook, involves demonstrating a public connection between one’s own identity and that of the brand. A customer advocate is not simply praising a particular experience; he is endorsing the organization behind that experience.

The fact that one is wholly content with the experience he received – and wholly loyal to the brand that delivered it – does not mean he will ever opt to advocate for the brand. The brand or product may not be "sexy" enough to drive advocacy (utilities, business services). The brand or product may be too personal to permit advocacy (medical). The brand or product may be too stigmatized to foster advocacy (night clubs, fast food).

Other brands, meanwhile, may leverage certain value points – particularly related to brand image or singularly dazzling experiences – to create willing advocates. While that effort will manifest as a strong NPS, it does not mean the contact center is performing optimally, that the advocacy will drive new business, that the customer will be a source of lucrative repeat business or that the business is immune from losing customers to competitors.

Make no mistake. Customer advocacy is a good thing. Customers would not advocate for a brand if they did not, in some way, approve of the brand experience. There are few scenarios, meanwhile, in which a business would suffer from the added exposure associated with customer recommendations.

But when we’re talking about selecting the definitive customer experience metric, Net Promoter Score is not necessarily the best thing. It is a singular expression of contentedness – and perhaps a signal of holistic brand appreciation – but it is not necessarily an optimal outcome.

Advocacy does not automatically breed referral business. It, moreover, does not automatically guarantee high levels of satisfaction and loyalty.

Concern #2: Net Promoter Score is not a surefire means to an end

The previous section conflates a high Net Promoter Score with a high level of customer advocacy. In reality, that connection is not assured.

Net Promoter Score specifically measures a customer’s willingness to recommend. It is therefore a statement of hypothetical sentiment rather than proven action.

As it is, customer advocacy itself makes no guarantee of a positive outcome. Not all recommendations lead to increased purchases. Not all brands are even in position to immediately benefit from a recommendation (or immediately suffer from a public criticism). A recommendation is nothing more than a public demonstration of a customer’s sentiment.

Even if a recommendation did lead to increased business, it could not do so until actually emerging. The fact that a customer is willing to recommend, as is signaled by a high Net Promoter Score, is not at all proof that he will actually issue such a recommendation, let alone one in a manner that would actually yield increased business.

No contact center metric is perfect, but Net Promoter Score is particularly flawed in that it does not even really measure what the lay executive assumes it is measuring (advocacy).

Concern #3: Net Promoter Score is not a compelling barometer of contact center or agent performance

Rallying for NPS stems from the idea that today’s businesses need to look at the entirety of the customer experience. Instead of simply looking at one facet of the process – such as individual support calls or the sales process – a metric like NPS takes everything into account. At the end of the day, is the overall customer experience something a customer would likely recommend?

While that big picture vision is necessary, the action that drives success happens at the granular level. The customer experience may be about more than the customer support call center, but what happens inside that center plays an instrumental role in the success or failure of the overall customer experience.

The best performance metrics, therefore, provide businesses with means of assessing, managing and improving their people, processes and technologies.

NPS is of little value in that context.

Consider a cable company with a poor customer service reputation. Recommendations may not even matter due to the monopolistic state, but even if they did, they would doubtfully come. Few customers are so content with the holistic experience that they need to let the world know of their glee.

That does not, however, mean that every individual agent experience is bad. For as much ill will as I carry toward my cable company’s overall experience, I have had plenty of positive customer support interactions with plenty of stellar customer service representatives. The overall nature of the company precludes the possibility that I would become a customer advocate (and thus limits the potential for a rising NPS), but that does not mean the contact center people, processes or technology failed. It does not mean the business should refrain from modeling training based on individual examples of excellence.

The opposite scenario applies to brands with famously positive brand reputations. Holistically, companies like Amazon, Disney and JetBlue offer so much value – and do so much right – that customer recommendations are inevitable. If I’m going to recommend an online retailer, I’m probably going to recommend Amazon. If I’m going to recommend an airline, I’m probably going to recommend JetBlue.

That does not, however, mean every individual interaction is worthy of celebration. As Call Center IQ readers know, I have had several negative experiences with Amazon and JetBlue. Another contributor encountered an issue with Disney.

In the short-term, customers’ admiration for the brand and respect for the holistic value proposition may negate any ill-will associated with individual experiences. There may not be a visible impact on the NPS.

If the negative experience escalates into something systemic, however, a more tangibly adverse impact will emerge. The brand’s reputation will suffer, and customer advocacy will decline. If shielded by a strong NPS, the business may not recognize the issue until it is too late.

Celebrate the good, don’t ignore the bad

Emphasis on NPS suggests that thought leaders and businesses are approaching the customer experience from an admirable perspective. It suggests that they’re looking beyond internal operations and thinking about how the totality of the offering impacts customers.

And insofar as it does provide brand insight, it is definitely not a meaningless metric.

But limitations in its methodology, in its depth of insight and in its relevance to customer experience performance suggest that it is not necessarily an end-all, be-all metric.