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Relationships, Transactions and Heuristics

There are two general types of customer satisfaction surveys: 1) Customer Transaction Surveys and 2) Customer Relationship Surveys. Customer Transactional Surveys allow you to track satisfaction for specific events. The transactional surveys are typically administered soon after the customer has a specific interaction with the company. The survey asks the customers to rate that specific interaction. Customer Relationship Surveys allow you to measure your customer’s attitudes across different customer touchpoints (e.g., marketing, sales, product, service/support) at a given point in time. The administration of the relationship surveys is not linked to any specific customer interaction with the company. Relationship surveys are typically administered at periodic times throughout the year (e.g., every other quarter, annually). Consequently, the relationship survey asks the customers to rate the company based on their past experience. While the surveys differ with respect to what is being rated (a transaction vs. a relationship), these surveys can share identical customer touchpoint questions (e.g., technical support, sales).

A high-tech company was conducting both a transactional survey and a relationship survey. The surveys shared identical items. Given that the ratings were coming from the same company and shared identical touchpoint questions, they expected the ratings to be the same for both the relationship survey and the transactional survey. The general finding, however, was that ratings on the transactional survey were typically higher than ratings for the same question on the relationship survey. What score is correct about the customer relationship? Why don’t ratings of identical items on relationship surveys and transactional surveys result in the same score? Humans are fallible.

Availability Heuristic

There is a line of research that examines the process by which people make judgments. This research shows that people use heuristics, or rules of thumb, when asked to make decisions or judgments about frequencies and probabilities of events. There is a heuristic called the “availability heuristic” that applies here quite well and might help us explain the difference between transactional ratings and relationship ratings of identical items.

People are said to employ the availability heuristic whenever their estimate of the frequency or probability of some event is based on the ease with which instances of that event can be brought to mind. Basically, the things you can recall more easily are estimated by you to be more frequent in the world than things you can’t recall easily. For example, when presented with a list containing an equal number of male and female names, people are more likely to think that the list contains more male names than female names when more males’ names are of famous men. Because these famous names were more easily recalled, the people think that there must be more male names than female names.

Customers, when rating companies as a whole (relationship surveys), are recalling their prior interactions with the company (e.g., their call into phone support, receipt of marketing material). Their “relationship rating” is a mental composite of these past interactions, negative, positive and mundane. Negative customer experiences, unlike positive or mundane ones, tend to be more vivid, visceral, and, consequently, are more easily recalled compared to pleasant experiences. When I think of my past interactions with companies, it is much easier for me to recall negative experiences than positive experiences. When thinking about a particular company, due to the availability heuristic, customers might overestimate the number of negative experiences, relative to positive experiences, that actually occurred with the company. Thus, their relationship ratings would be adversely affected by the use of the availability heuristic.

Ratings from transactional surveys, however, are less vulnerable to the effect of the availability heuristic. Because the customers are providing ratings for one recent, specific interaction, the customers’ ratings would not be impacted by the availability heuristic.

Summary and Implications

Customer satisfaction ratings in relationship surveys are based on customers’ judgment of past experiences with the company, and, consequently, are susceptible to the effects of the availability heuristic. Customers may more easily recall negative experiences, and, consequently, these negative experiences negatively impact their ratings of the company overall. While it would appear that a transactional survey could be a more accurate measure than a relationship survey, you shouldn’t throw out the use of relationship surveys just yet.

While average scores on items in relationship surveys might be decreased due to the availability heuristic, the correlation among items should not be impacted by the availability heuristic because correlations are independent of scale values; decreasing ratings by a constant across all customers does not have any effect on the correlation coefficients among the items being rated. Consequently, the same drivers of satisfaction/loyalty would be found irrespective of survey type.

I’d like to hear your thoughts.

4 Responses to Relationships, Transactions and Heuristics

  1. Marya Darabont February 9, 2012 at 1:40 am #

    Hello, I would like to see the posts to these comments. I find the topic interesting and challenging.

  2. Shelley Barnes January 24, 2012 at 11:27 pm #

    Please see my corrected email. I cannot see the posts to this article. Thank you.

  3. Shelley Barnes January 24, 2012 at 2:35 am #

    Thank you for this explanation. It is often requested by clients. Another question is about response rates for transactional surveys, for example a delivery or support call. Do you have a paper or post providing best advice for this? My understanding is that you make sure that you achieve a consistent response rate for the Relationship survey but do not need to be concerned about it for the Transactional survey because this type of survey is not set up to be a representative sample of your customer base.


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    […] both a transactional survey and a relationship survey that had the same/similar questions, I found that ratings in transactional surveys are significantly better (e.g., customers more satisfied) than ratings for […]

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