Voice of the Customer:  Navigating Ethics and Authenticity in Customer Reviews

Voice of the Customer:  Navigating Ethics and Authenticity in Customer Reviews

Picture this scenario: You have just completed a purchase or service engagement with a particular brand. Soon afterwards, you receive an e-mail thanking you for your business and requesting your feedback on your experience. There’s a catch though – you receive another email from the employee who served you, encouraging you to participate in this independent survey, but explicitly stating that your feedback is directly linked to his or her incentive. You are asked to rate your experience with a 9 or 10, as these ratings positively impact the employee’s incentives while conversely, a lower rating could potentially mean deductions from the employee’s incentive compensation.

It’s jarring, right? 

The practice of linking customer feedback and reviews directly to employee compensation could inadvertently prompt employees towards such manipulation of customer feedback. It also raises important ethical considerations about transparency and authenticity in customer feedback, and of course, the true value of the feedback to the brand.

The Ethics at Play

The fundamental ethical question to ask is whether it is appropriate to tie individual employee compensation directly to customer ratings, especially given that customer experience is rarely the culmination of a single experience with one service consultant, but rather a journey that requires careful and thoughtful design of every customer touchpoint.

While no one is disputing the value of incentives to drive employee performance and improve service behaviours which have a direct bearing on customer service satisfaction, brands should consider the risk of these unethical practices by employees to maximise their remuneration, by manipulating the outcome of the customer feedback?  

Transparency and trust are the cornerstones of customer relationships and the expectation from customers who take the time to provide their feedback openly and honestly, is that their feedback will be taken seriously and used to improve the overall experience with the brand. When employees emotionally ‘blackmail’ customers into providing higher ratings by disclosing how the internal compensation framework affects their livelihood, it distorts the outcome (metrics) as well as breaks down trust and transparency. It is likely to come across as manipulative, even coercive, and erodes the trust that businesses work so hard to build with their customers. This is the fundamental risk when the model is not premised on and conducive to learning and improving, but rather reward or punishment.

How to balance incentives with authenticity

Instead of focusing solely on ratings and tying the results to individuals’ remuneration, brands that are serious about getting their customers honest and uncompromised feedback should consider alternative strategies that prioritise authentic customer feedback.  These include:

  • Employee Incentives: No one is disputing that employee motivation and incentives are crucial for maintaining a motivated workforce, however linking these incentives solely to customer ratings is bound to encourage leading behaviour to influence a favourable outcome. A more balanced approach is required where employee bonuses are tied to a combination of factors such as customer feedback, team performance, and other qualitative metrics.
  • Prioritise Improvement Over Penalties: Negative feedback should be viewed as an opportunity for improvement and growth, and not as a punishment or penalty.  Encourage customers to provide direction for areas for improvement, and then offer training interventions and resources that go directly to the heart of addressing customer concerns. 
  • Education and Communication: Educate both employees and customers about the value of honest and constructive feedback. Promote a culture where customers feel empowered to share their experiences and employees understand the impact of their actions on the overall customer journey. The voice of the customer should be treated as the powerful tool that it is to improve every touchpoint in the customer’s journey.
  • Genuine Customer-Centricity: When customers perceive that a company is authentically dedicated to their satisfaction, positive reviews will naturally follow. If your brand is genuinely committed to enhancing the customer experience by listening and acting on feedback, and employees do not feel at the mercy of customers’ feedback for their remuneration, there simply is no need to or room for manipulating ratings.

Ethics in Customer Feedback

As brands adapt to continually evolving customer expectations and market dynamics, maintaining ethical standards in customer research and surveys is crucial.  Any practice using a carrot-and-stick approach, especially when tied directly to employee compensation, carries tremendous risks. It is very likely to leave a poor impression on your customer of a brand’s integrity and ethics when it comes to employment practices and the seriousness with which it takes customer feedback.

Focus on building a culture of genuine customer-centricity that leads to positive reviews and loyal customers as it will ensure improved employee and customer experience. Within an environment of learning and improvement, there would be no need for coercion or influencing ratings by employees in a particular direction. Good or bad, every authentic customer review is an opportunity to do better, to grow and refine the customer journey and achieve a real competitive advantage in the market by acting on the true voice of your customer. 

The fundamental question to be answered is whether the skewed results and feedback that such unethical practices by employees delivers as a result of poorly considered incentive frameworks, is really the foundation upon which a sustainable, strategic, customer-centric business can be built.

Investing in a Voice of the Customer program should be a business’s primary consideration as this is where businesses gather valuable insights into what drives Customer Experience and how to improve it. Asking for your customer’s authentic feedback – and acting on it – is what builds emotional connections with customers who feel listened to and that their opinions matter. Authentic customer feedback is a gift – never compromise it by prioritising short-term vanity metrics over the substance of authentic customer feedback.

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