Professor Andrea Flynn Says It's Time to Face up to 'Feedback Fatigue' in the Wall Street Journal

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begin quoteCustomers actually start to delay how often they interact with the company because they don’t want to have to deal with the follow up.

Surveys are known to be a crucial part of improving customer experience but too much of a good thing can actually have the reverse effect. Customer feedback fatigue occurs when a customer becomes mentally drained from giving too many reviews on products they’ve purchased causing them to delay their future interactions. Featured in an article written by the Wall Street Journal, Associate Professor of Marketing and Academic Director Andrea Flynn weighs in on the repercussions of soliciting too much feedback. 

Article as it appears in The Wall Street Journal

It's Time to Face Up to 'Feedback Fatigue'

Kimberly Purcell describes herself as a huge Costco fan, but her latest purchase came with something she didn’t want.

“I bought a mattress, and now I’m getting emails twice a week asking me to review it,” said Ms. Purcell, a productivity consultant. “I used to really appreciate that Costco didn’t bug you. But I’ve ordered a bunch of stuff in the past few months, and every time I’ve bought something, I get these emails: ‘Please review the product you bought.’”

In their eagerness to deliver a better customer experience, companies have created a new kind of bad customer experience: feedback fatigue.

“If the survey actually becomes a negative touch point, that overshadows other experiences,” said Maxie Schmidt-Subramanian, principal analyst for customer experience at Forrester Research Inc. “We’re ruining the ability to reach out to customers and connect with them.”

Costco declined to comment.

A 2017 study in the Journal of Service Research found that people who received a survey from a major auto dealership after they bought a vehicle or made a service visit were likely to spend more on their next visit—but they also typically took longer to come back. Over time, as customers returned for additional purchases or service calls, the survey requests were followed by smaller spending increases and longer intervals between visits.

In other words, the survey suggested that repeated surveys may make customers reluctant to return.

“Customers actually start to delay how often they interact with the company because they don’t want to have to deal with the follow up,” said Andrea Godfrey Flynn, associate professor of marketing at the University of San Diego School of Business, and the lead author of the car-dealership study. “Or maybe they scale back their purchasing. There’s more and more academic research that shows the backlash effect.”

A 2010 study, for instance, found that customer surveys sometimes delay customers from making another purchase. Another, published in 2014, describes a “tragedy of the commons” dynamic in which over-surveying by different organizations leads to exhaustion with all the requests for feedback.

Companies often assume that more contact with their customers is better, according to Prof. Flynn. “It’s hard to break the instinct that, like in our interpersonal relationships, the more we can communicate with each other, the better that’s going to be,” she said. “It’s hard for it to sink in that it can actually drive your customers away.”

Some executives who know the risks agonize about using surveys but don’t want to abandon them entirely.

“Our customers are not necessarily watching over their email inboxes waiting for invitations from us to complete surveys or jump on half-hour qualitative interview calls,” said Dave Cosgrave, director of market insights and analytics at FreshBooks, a cloud-based accounting-software firm.

FreshBooks gathers as much insight as it can by analyzing its customer-support interactions and the way people use its platform, but the unobtrusive approach has its limits, Mr. Cosgrave said.

He gave the example of a survey that showed that even companies with fewer than five employees may have hierarchical structures and need support for different user roles and permissions when using Freshbooks’ software—a finding that contradicted FreshBooks executives’ previous assumptions.

“We’re not in a position where we can learn everything we need to learn from customers about their needs, their circumstances and their goals,” Mr. Cosgrave said. “You don’t collect that data as a byproduct of doing business.”

The company still uses surveys, but tries to make sure customers don’t get more than three survey requests a year plus follow-up messages after customer support interactions.

Another tactic is to convince customers that their input matters.

Angela Sinickas, a business communication researcher who has written about survey fatigue, recommended that organizations preface survey invitations with an explanatory message along the lines of “Last year when we did our survey like this, we learned X, and because of this, we changed Y.”

That can improve response rates, Ms. Sinickas said. “The best way to get someone to say ‘Yes, I’ll do this,’ is if they know that it’s made a difference and management seems to be listening.”

Companies should also be selective about when they ask for feedback and try to stick to major interactions, such as when there has been a service failure or somebody has made an unusually large purchase, according to Prof. Flynn. If a bank seeks feedback after someone calls to check her bank balance, that just undermines the authenticity of their requests, she said.

Companies could also just hope for customers’ understanding. Ms. Purcell, the Costco shopper, is also on the board of her local chapter of the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals—a role that involves regularly sending out surveys to group members.

She is frustrated when her surveys garner only a few responses, she said. “We’re looking for feedback from a small group of specific people because we want to improve their experience of something they’ve paid a lot of money for,” she said.

“But I guess Costco has the same perspective,” she said. “They’re just trying to give us a product we want.”

On that point, Ms. Purcell said she’s thrilled with her new mattress—despite Costcos questions about it.


Renata Ramirez
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