Avoiding the CX Rat Trap

Avoiding the CX Rat Trap

Goodhart's Law

A story of rats, cobras and economists

This is a story about rats, cobras and economists (and no, they’re not the same thing!) but it’s primarily a blog about a British economist called Charles Goodhart and his take on target setting, key performance indicators (KPIs) and the law of unintended consequences.

Goodhart is a man whose musings are worth reading if you’re struggling to make your customer experience (CX) programme work. All CX programmes involve the measurement of customer satisfaction (CSat), Net Promoter Score (NPS) or similar KPI. Companies will sometimes incentivise their employees to achieve a particular CX objective: “If we hit our NPS target of +50 this year, all sales staff get an additional bonus of £1,000.” This is not an uncommon practice. It’s also not a good one, as we are going to find out shortly.

Charles Goodhart is best known for Goodhart’s Law, which is neatly summarised in the Sketchplanations cartoon above. Setting targets can result in unintended consequences, particularly where incentives are involved.

Before we delve into Goodhart and his famous law, let’s start with a couple of stories about rats and cobras.

The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt

In 1902, the French ruled Indochina, a region in South East Asia comprised of modern-day Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The capital and administrative centre was Hanoi.

That year, the French administrators introduced a bounty on rats after it was discovered that rats played a significant role in transmitting the plague. The Third Plague Pandemic was a pretty serious issue in Asia at the time. It had spread from China in the late nineteenth century and by the time it was finally eradicated in the 1960s, more than 10 million people had died from the plague.

A bounty seemed to make sense. To claim it, the locals simply had to bring in a bag of rat tails. There was no need for piles of dead rats clogging up the corridors of power in Hanoi – tails would suffice. Within weeks, the bounty was working. Hundreds of rat tails poured in. Then thousands. It seemed too good to be true, and so it turned out to be.

It didn’t take long for French officials to figure out what was happening. The bounty had created an entirely new industry in Hanoi where rodent tails were brought into the capital from the countryside. Worse still, entrepreneurs in Hanoi started to breed rats in order to increase their bounty revenues. The number of rats in Hanoi was increasing, rather than decreasing.

Eventually, the bounty was discontinued. This story of administrative failure and unintended consequences is told in Michael Vann’s book The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt.

The Cobra Effect

It’s not just the French who were outwitted by their colonial subjects. A similar case happened under British rule in India, and documented in Horst Siebert’s book Der Kobra-Effekt.

At the same time that the French were grappling with a rat epidemic in Hanoi, the British were dealing with a cobra explosion in India. Cobras were viewed by the British administrators as deadly pests and a bounty was introduced in Delhi for every dead cobra handed in to the authorities. Many cobras were killed and handed in but, to the bemusement of the British rulers, the cobra population seemed to be on the rise.

It’s the same story of simple economics: the cost of breeding a cobra was significantly lower than the bounty, so entrepreneurs started to breed cobras. When the bounty was stopped, the breeders released the remaining cobras into the wild, further exacerbating the situation.

Goodhart's Law

Charles Goodhart is a British economist. He was born in 1936 and spent nearly 20 years of his career at the Bank of England, working on and writing about public and financial policy. In 1975, he wrote a paper containing the line: “whenever a government seeks to rely on a previously observed statistical regularity for control purposes, that regularity will collapse.”

The comment was specifically about monetary policy but would later be generalised as a law about targets, metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs). In 1997, the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern expressed Goodhart’s Law as follows when she was investigating grade inflation in university examinations:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. The more a 2.1 examination performance becomes an expectation, the poorer it becomes as a discriminator of individual performances. Targets that seem measurable become enticing tools for improvement.

Marilyn Strathern’s interpretation that has become the most widely used today.

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure

The basic message from Goodhart’s Law is a simple one: beware the law of unintended consequences when you set targets for people to achieve.

This is equally true when companies set targets in the field of customer experience (CX). If senior leadership teams incentivise their sales people and account managers to hit Net Promoter Score (NPS) targets, they will be achieved come hell or high water. In a previous blog, I outlined how CX programmes are often ‘gamed’ to achieve ridiculously high NPS targets which bear no relationship to the company’s actual performance. Common actions taken to game the CX system include:

  • Selecting only those clients who are Ambassadors for you and your product or service, when you are looking for customer feedback
  • Within those clients, selecting only those individuals who you know will score you 9/10 or 10/10 (these are ‘Promoters’ in NPS terminology)
  • Making sure to deselect any client that is likely to give you a poor score, using excuses like: “Now is not the right time to ask their views” or “We’ll only antagonise them if we approach them now”
  • Refusing to send a survey to anybody who doesn’t know you really well, even if it’s a senior decision maker that you’d love to have a conversation with. Why? The chances of them scoring you 9 or 10 are slim
  • Not outsourcing the NPS survey process to a third party that can give the option of confidentiality to survey participants – confidential surveys are likely to elicit lower scores even if they provide a much more realistic and honest view of your product or service

In many cases, employees and leadership teams are unaware that they are gaming the system. They simply believe that they are doing the right thing for the company.

Avoiding the CX Rat Trap - 5 Rules

Rule No. 1: Do not incentivise employees to achieve CX targets. It’s that simple. If you do, you’ll end up with more rats and cobras than you can handle.

Rule No. 2: If your Senior Leadership Team or Board is bonused on achieving NPS results, stop this practice immediately! You would be amazed at the number of companies that engage in such bonus schemes.

Rule No. 3: Resist the temptation to publish your Net Promoter Score in your annual report. All you are doing is setting yourself up for inflated NPS results as nobody in the organisation will want to be associated with a ‘down year’. It’s human nature. By accident or design, employees and leaders will game the system to achieve higher scores next year.

Rule No. 4: Put a robust CX governance structure in place. Make sure ALL clients are surveyed. Sign off the contact lists. Resist the urge to exclude people whose views might be unfavourable – you want to know what they are thinking.

Rule No. 5: Finally, don’t approach CX with the mindset of a colonial administrator! Senior leadership teams have to view customer feedback as a gift. They have to encourage their colleagues to be open about getting feedback, whether good, bad or indifferent. Without honest feedback, change will never happen. Poor practices will continue and eventually clients will leave.

Finally, if you want to find out more about how to set up and run a customer experience (CX) programme effectively, contact us for a chat. We’d love to hear from you.

The B2B Blindspot: Why NPS Isn’t Enough

The B2B Blindspot: Why NPS Isn’t Enough

Why do so many B2B CX programmes fail?

Later this year, Bert Paesbrugghe will be hosting a LinkedIn webinar called The B2B Customer Success Blindspot: Why NPS Isn’t Enough. It sounds like it will be a good session and I have cheekily borrowed his title for this blog as it got me thinking about some of the reasons why B2B companies set up customer experience (CX) or Net Promoter Score (NPS) programmes in the first place.

More important, it’s worth reflecting on why these CX and NPS endeavours often fail to deliver on their initial promise. And that’s the sad truth – many of these programmes fail to improve the service delivered to customers. They don’t succeed for a variety of reasons. One of these is the belief that Net Promoter Score is a silver bullet for solving all manner of customer woes.

It’s not. That’s the blindspot. NPS is not enough for B2B companies.

B2B is different

The first thing to mention is that the Business-to-Business (B2B) world is VERY different to its Business-to-Consumer (B2C) counterpart.

The consumer world is all about the 4Ps: ProductPricePlace and PromotionMarketing guru Philip Kotler popularised the 4Ps back in the 1960s. They were a core part of his Marketing Management book that many of us still have on our shelves today.

My only real problem with the 4Ps model is that it’s essentially a B2C concept. It doesn’t cover the subtleties of the B2B world where very often a service provider is delivering a very complex service across multiple locations – often in different countries. This is a world away from selling and marketing consumer products such as Mars Bars or Mercedes cars.

The 4Ps also don’t take into account the need for key/ global account management or the associated challenges of building and maintaining relationships with multiple decision makers and influencers across large global organisations.

NPS is one-dimensional

Net Promoter Score has proven to be one of the most durable metrics in management, ever since its invention by academic and business consultant Fred Reichheld more that two decades ago. Reichheld’s basic premise was that you only need to ask one question in order to understand if a customer is going to stay loyal to you or not. The question is: “How likely are you to recommend us to a friend or colleague?”

Fred, an excellent marketeer, promoted the benefits of his Net Promoter Score (NPS) concept in publications like the Harvard Business Review. He then proclaimed its merits in his 2006 book The Ultimate Question. Since then, NPS has became a hugely popular metric for customer loyalty and customer experience.

I’ve written about NPS before and, in general, I’m a fan of the metric for both its simplicity and its popularity. Sure, it’s not perfect, as Professor Nick Lee points out. But then again, is there a perfect KPI for anything? Let’s agree that Net Promoter Score has its place and is worth measuring even if it is a little one-dimensional. 

So NPS is good, but much more is required, particularly in the B2B world with all of its complexities, peculiarities and challenges.

Why NPS is not enough (in B2B)

Let’s go back to basics here. B2B IS different. So let’s recap on what some of those differences are:

  • Customer Base. Consumer brands like Mars Bars and Mercedes cars are sold to millions of individuals. Three million sold every single day, in the case of Mars Bars. In contrast, we work with B2B clients that generate annual revenues of more than €1bn from fewer than 100 clients.
  • Value. A Mars Bar costs around €1.60 at the time of writing (let me know if you can source them cheaper!) while an outsourced IT contract can be worth €100m. Admittedly, a Mars Bar can be consumed in less than five minutes while a €100m contract might take five years to consume. But you get the picture: value and Value For Money are very different in the B2B and B2C worlds.
  • Marketing Strategy. We talked earlier about Kotler’s 4Ps. While the consumer world is all about Product, the B2B world is more around Service and Relationships. Even in today’s AI-enabled world, those services are still delivered by people. Relationship-building is a critical component of the marketing mix the B2B world.
  • Sales Focus. In the consumer world, merchandising and point-of-sale advertising are key. In the B2B world, far more emphasis is placed on educating the customer about features, benefits, return on investment, and so on. This is still mainly done through personal contact and relationships.
  • What to Maximise? The consumer world is about the transaction – promoting those Mars Bar at the point of sale, for example. Customer lifetime value (CLV) is rarely if ever mentioned in the consumer world. CLV is arguably the most important thing to maximise in the B2B world as it typically takes 2-5 years to recover the initial sales cost of a major multi-year contract win.
  • Buying Process. In a supermarket, buying a Mars Bar is a split-second decision. Even for a Mercedes, the decision can be quick. Clinching that 5-year outsourcing deal can and does take years from beginning to end. It also involves multiple decision-makers and influencers.
  • Buying Decision. In the consumer world, decisions are often made on emotion – hence the importance of brand and image. In the B2B world, we like to think decisions are made on rational grounds, based on cleary-defined evaluation criteria.

What else is needed?

Let’s assume we have just sold a 5-year outsourcing deal to a client and we are now in the onboarding or delivery stage of that contract. Yes, it’s useful to know if our client would recommend us to a friend or colleague. That’s the Net Promoter question, but is it enough?

Not really. Ideally, we need to know much more. For example, do our clients trust us now that we have started working for them? Are they committed to us for the long term? Are they happy with the service that they are now receiving? 

These are just some of the questions that we need to ask our B2B clients in a systematic way. We need answers at an aggregate level but we also need feedback at an account level. Contract A may be going swimmingly. Contract B may already be on the rocks (to continue the theme) but we might not know that if we are only getting aggregated client feedback.

Eliminating the blindspot: Customer Relationship Quality (CRQ)

An alternative to asking the one-dimensional NPS question is to view the customer relationship more holistically. That’s where Customer Relationship Quality (CRQ) fits in.

CRQ can be visualised as a pyramid comprised of three different levels.

  1. The first and most fundamental is the Relationship level. Do your clients trust you, are they committed to a long-term relationship with you, and are they satisfied with that relationship?
  2. The second is the Uniqueness level. Do your clients view the experience of working with you, and the solutions you offer, as truly differentiated and unique? Do they see us as good value for money?
  3. At the top of the pyramid is the Service level. Are you seen as reliable, responsive and caring? Get this wrong and you will never be seen as Unique and you will struggle to build a long-term relationship with that client.

Interestingly, CRQ and NPS scores are highly correlated. If you score well on all six elements of this Customer Relationship Quality (CRQ) model, your clients will act as Ambassadors, generating a high NPS result for you. However, CRQ gives you so much more information to act upon, and that’s far more important.

The most important part: Action

The CRQ model above was specifically designed for the B2B world. That said, it really doesn’t matter what questions you ask your clients if you fail to do anything with their feedback.

The most important part of any NPS, CRQ, CX or client listening programme is the ‘Action’ piece. The reason that many  customer programmes fail to deliver is that they are run by the Marketing department (sorry guys and gals!) while the members of the company’s Senior Management Team have collectively washed their hands of any responsibility for acting on that client feedback.

In most B2B organisations, key client relationships are owned by Sales. In some cases where delivery is an ongoing function, it’s the Service or Operations functions that have most of the day-to-day client contact. It’s rarely, if ever, somebody from Marketing. The Sales Director (or Service/ Operations Director) needs to own the ‘Close The Loop’ element of the programme. It’s unfair to expect Marketing to take responsibility for it.

Put it another way: it’s madness to think that Marketing can effect change on its own. That’s a Leadership function. I’ve never seen a successful NPS ar CX programme that has not been driven from the top. So regardless of what you think of NPS as a B2B metric, don’t assume that NPS or any other set of survey questions is going to improve your top line or your profitability. It won’t, unless there’s follow-up action. That action needs to be managed systematically, and it needs to be driven by the  SMT or Executive Team.

Finally, do remember that it’s not about the score. It’s about using that valuable client feedback to take action and become more customer-centric. That’s how you generate more revenues and boost profits.

My new role as CX Product Manager: anyone up for a coffee and a chat?

My new role as CX Product Manager: anyone up for a coffee and a chat?

You may have had a peak at Rose’s blog from a few weeks ago regarding the results of our latest CRQ™ assessment. We received a ton of positive feedback from our customers, and it is clear they love what we do for them, so much so that they want more! 

So why am I re-iterating what Rose already shared in her previous blog? Well as part of Deep-Insight’s response to the 2023 CRQ feedback, a new role within the team has been announced: Product Manager

I am super excited and proud to share with all of you that I will be taking on the role of Product Manager at Deep-Insight!  

Who am I?

Some of you may know me from the projects we have worked on together over the past few years, but for those of you who do not know me yet, here’s a little bit about me: 

My name is Fabienne, I am originally from the Netherlands but have been living in beautiful Ireland for over 7 years now. I have been part of the Deep-Insight team for nearly 5 years and … I am a BIG fan of a good cup of coffee, so when it comes to my new role within Deep-Insight, this is exactly where I intend to start…. Coffee! 

I’m not being silly here, I actually do believe that it is key that I start my new role talking to you, our past, current and future customers. I want to understand more about how you see Deep-Insight and where you envision us to be in the next few years. How can we assist you further on your CX journey as well as in reaching your business goals? 

I am thrilled to be starting my new role in the next year and cannot wait to see what the future holds for Deep-Insight!  

I’ll be spending the first few months in my new role chatting about all this in more detail with many of you and can’t wait to get stuck in 🙂 

Please free to reach out to me directly if you have some thoughts/ideas you’d like to share! 



Fabienne Falvay