This article is Part II of “Incentives Gone Wild,” a story discussing the reality of incentives that hit too close to an individual’s pocketbook. When businesses and governments implement over-simplified incentive programs, people begin to see dollars within reach and an all-or-none set of options for receiving those dollars. Rather than driving employees to define and test long-term solutions and process improvements, these plans can make employees risk—averse, with fears that any large changes could put their bonus dollars at risk. Innovation and improvement can stall, and worse, individuals can be driven toward desperate measures in order to win their performance bonuses.
Organizations leverage incentives to drive behaviors
As stated in the first article, businesses understand that employee behaviors can be impacted by offering monetary rewards for behaviors that drive success.
Enter the customer feedback survey, a tool designed to enable businesses to understand customer preferences and, in response, modify products or services. Survey data helps companies steer their ships more competitively, answering questions like: “Where should we invest more?” “What product lines should we drop?” What issues are critical to resolve?”
In addition, because surveys provide such a clear, crisp, cache of data, some businesses see it as the simplest solution for the challenging task of measuring employee performance. Customer feedback surveys offer an indisputable metric that is viewed as objective and outcomes-based. In the end, if the customer is satisfied and wants to come back again, the worker succeeded, period. So businesses tie a rope on part of the employee’s compensation, and anchor it to the customer feedback results.
When surveys become the primary metric for rewarding employees, customers are placed in an uncomfortable position. If their service was not perfect, they are asked to either punish the service rep, or lie to the company.
Pictured: Vendor Letter Requesting that I Lie to Give Rep a Perfect Score: Featured here is a reprint of actual e-mails that were sent to me by a vendor that had recently sold me $10,000 of service. The original (less readable) copies of the letters are also shown at the bottom of this article.
When I received the request to give a perfect rating on the feedback survey, it was clear that they were asking me to put honesty aside and game the system for individual gain. “Lie for me so I’ll get paid more.”
Rather than blame the senders, I wanted to think harder about the drivers. Why would otherwise-good people strong-arm me, their friendly, forgiving, paying customer?
I realized there were many layers of mental games going on, from the corporate level, to the local branch level, into my own life. The game was manipulating incentives. And those at fault were more likely the program masterminds, not the pawns.
The letters prompted me to consider a whole host of questions, questions that the marketing and brand teams would be horrified to see their people were generating.
- “If I’m paying one company, and if they promote their brand as one global brand, then why is my experience telling me that there are actually warring factions vying for my attention?
- Why am I, the customer, being asked to settle employee quality issues?
- Is this company truly concerned about quality outcomes or is the management just becoming lazy and binary when it comes to rating employees’ performance and developing their skills?
- If “the company” isn’t the people I just spent the last three months with, then who is the big giant faceless head that just took my $10,000?
A few simple e-mails expose deep organizational weakness and brand issues:
- The company is operating in a ‘we vs. they’ manner, creating a divide between the local stores and the corporate headquarters and putting employees’ compensation at risk without holding corporate management accountable for leading and supporting local stores in a service-oriented manner.
- Leaders who are taking an overly-simplistic (lazy) route to performance management, measuring performance in a very binary way. Performance improvement is iterative. There is no iterative learning, no improvement-focused risk taking, if the employee feels that her first failure will place her in a financial guillotine. (Employees emotionally budget for their potential bonuses, logical or not.)
- Fuzzy customer focus. This letter asks a customer to lie to benefit and individual employee. Employees feel pressured-enough by headquarters to do this. Headquarters thinks their method of extracting outcomes is working and that they will hear honest feedback from customers. But their methods will rather mute customers and drive them away. The short-sighted incentive program reveals there are probably directors and VP’s who are more concerned with finding a clear way to appear successful to their upward management, and less concerned about holistic organizational improvement and overall success.
- Weak customer relationships. When energies are focused on upward management and looking good from above, the customer doesn’t feel safe, valued or protected. I no longer know who the good guys are – is it the branch or corporate? This is the harbinger of crashing brand image and the related dip in market value.
How I rated the representative in the end?
The core problem was the organization’s alignment of individual compensation punishments (as they are truly perceived) with performance that is not purely dependent on individual behaviors. The company has the opportunity to make improvements by developing service-oriented leaders and by establishing structures in which intra and inter-team innovation thrives.
And while the individual service representative was not at fault, she did choose to game the system overtly. She and her branch did make the choice to ask me to lie. Service was not perfect.
So I declined to respond to the survey. There may be times in life when faking it has value. This just wasn’t one of them.
Soap Box Post Script: If you are going to ask for a fake perfect rating, you’d better ask perfectly. One of the e-mails I received, asking me to lie on the feedback survey and say they were perfect, contained punctuation/grammatical errors. If a service representative decides to beg high-paying customers for a one-way favor, then the begging letter had better be perfect. If you choose to fake it, fake it well.