Following on from yesterday’s post, fitness expert Daryl Pace asked:

That a customer’s answer to a satisfaction survey depends upon the context in which the questions were framed, as well as other possible factors, does seem to make sense. However, if a business did a survey that just asked the question, “are you satisfied overall with the service this business provides you”, it seems that they would get a decent gauge on the general customer sentiment about the business. What do you think?

It’s a great question, and I’m happy to tell you what I think as it gets right to the heart of one of my favourite subjects, consumer research.

The first thing to say is that, if you were going to ask this question, Daryl’s implicit suggestion that you JUST ask this one question (so as to remove the risk of inadvertent framing) would definitely be the best option. 

However, in all my years of consumer research and marketing I’ve never seen a one question questionnaire (although I do use this approach myself sometimes in a slightly different context).  Instead people want to break down an issue into its logical constituent parts or, at the very least, ask people why they think what they do.

In both cases, the fact that you’ve asked other questions or asked ‘why?’ changes the way the brain works, what the person thinks and what they go on to say in reply.

But there are other problems with asking even the single question on satisfaction:

  • Asking a question creates a context and influences the respondent’s mindset; different ways of asking produce different results.  How do you know if what you’re getting is a legitimate appraisal of that customer’s satisfaction and not one that is shaped by the dynamic of questioning?  You don’t.
  • Asking people to explain what they like and don’t like has been shown to change the overall rating that they give.
  • Where you ask and who is asking will change the response.  As will whatever the person was doing immediately prior to your having asked them.  Understanding what is ‘in play’ in terms of response influence is extremely difficult.
  • Asking about satisfaction presupposes that satisfaction is a salient issue for the consumer.  If you ask you will get an answer, but customers may very well not be processing the experience in a way that reflects our conscious notion of satisfying or dissatisfying experiences.

Supposing you go ahead and ask and learn that 80% of people are satisfied; how do you interpret that data.  OK, you could look at how that number has changed, but does a drop of 20% mean you have a problem, or are people just becoming accustomed to something that was previously perceived as satisfying?  Over time you have created your own context and people have unconsciously moved the satisfaction goal posts because of what you’ve done for them!

What if satisfaction scores increase but sales decline?  Does that mean you shouldn’t look at your product or service because it’s satisfying people?

I’ve conducted research where people were satisfied with a customer service help desk.  But I knew that they weren’t satisfied at all.


I’d watched them have their customer experience.  It was unpleasant.  They were unhappy and uncomfortable throughout the interaction that was taking place.

I told my client the good news, “Everyone’s satisfied with your customer help desk.”  And then the bad news, “They’re only satisfied because their expectations of you are so low that, provided they get a positive outcome in the end, they’ll accept it.”

So, I think the whole concept of measuring customer satisfaction is misjudged.  Yes you get a number and companies love numbers, but it’s a meaningless one and it doesn’t, or more to the point shouldn’t, make any difference to how a company appraises what it’s offering to customers.

There are better ways of gauging satisfaction.

Philip Graves


  1. Duane Cunningham

    HI Phil,

    I can’t say I’ve ever seen a one question survey either!

    I guess the real test of customer satisfaction is whether once they have tested your product that they come back again! And what the life time value is of your customer??


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  2. John Ho


    Being a Numerologist, whenever you mention numbers, you get may attention.

    You are disputing the validity of the “numbers” the companies are getting from their Customer Sat surveys. And you said that “There are better ways of gauging satisfaction.”

    Well, looking forward to hearing you to spill the beans a bit what better ways are there.

    John Ho
    Numerology Expert Helps Understanding Personality for Better Influence & Persuasion (WordPress Blog)
    Numerology Expert Birthday Numeroscope (Vox Blog)
    Numerology Expert Helps Understanding Personality for Better Influence & Persuasion

  3. Lisa Mclellan

    I have found myself giving different answers to basically the same question depending on the wording of the question. I have also found through babysitting children of all ages, that at a particular age, (usually younger children age 2-4)children will choose the last choice they are given when you ask a question giving them a few answers to choose from. For example, you ask, “How did you get that scratch, did you fall down, did you scratch it on the corner of the bookcase, or did the cat scratch you?” 99% of the time, the child will say the cat scratched them simply because it was the last option.

    Lisa McLellan, Babysitting Services – Babysitters, Nannies, and Au-pairs

  4. anthony lemme

    Great stuff. I love the truthful no b.s tone if it. I concur with everything you write but for, as you once said, a different reason. We seem to come to many of the same conclusions from very, very different means. I like reality myself and you are good at presenting it in a quantifiable and scientific way that I can totally appreciate.

    The Most Powerful Personal Growth and Mind Development Tool on Earth

  5. Pingback: Customer Satisfaction: Out of the Mouths of Babes | Consumer Behaviour

  6. Darryl Pace

    Thank you for answering my question. It caused me to think about whether or not I’ve ever seen a one question survey, and of course I haven’t! From your post, it has become more clear to me why customer surveys are generally ineffective in ascertaining the customer sentiments the sponsoring company seeks. Your post also makes me curious about how a company can determine customer satisfaction.

    Health, Fitness — Darryl Pace
    Fitness Product Review

  7. Newport Beach, Widow Support, Bereavement Counseling, Divorce Recovery, Grief Support, Orange County, Huntington Beach, Long Beach, Irvine

    Hi Phil,

    great point. I love Darryl’s question. And it is so simple and straightforward. and yet, did s/he have their coffee this morning? Get hit by a car? Receive too many emails from everyone else including this email survey I am just sending over? Did I bring you a donut you DON’T care for or did I just walk in bringing you your favorite muffin and favorite coffee drink from Peets or Starbucks?


    There’s always a frame even when we don’t make any conscious efforts to SET a frame.


    Best regards,

    April Braswell

    Single Boomer Dating Expert, Business Relationship Success Coach

    Widows Grief Support Group, Bereavement Counseling, Stages of Grief, Workshop Orange County, Costa Mesa Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, CA

    Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Orange County, Website Marketing, Web Design, SEO, Social Media Marketing

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