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The Power of Positive

How Fishing for Compliments Can Change Customer Behavior

For anyone who’s been a customer, these scenes might be familiar: A grocery clerk asks, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” A link at the bottom of a receipt promises a free drink in return for feedback. A restaurant manager passes by a table and asks if the steak tastes OK.

Seeking customer feedback is nothing new. Most companies use surveys to collect customer comments and to measure customer satisfaction. And many of these surveys, according to a group of BYU Marriott researchers and their colleagues, are priming customers to look for the negative—what they couldn’t find in the store, when customer service failed, and how the meat was too tough.
What if instead restaurants asked, “Do you have any compliments for the chef?” It’s a simple shift that, according to research, could have huge payoffs—both for a company’s bottom line and for the overall well-being of customers.

In research that’s spanned a decade and produced seven papers (and counting), this research team—which includes BYU Marriott marketing professor Bruce Money and organizational behavior and human resources professor Kristen Bell DeTienne—has gathered what Money calls groundbreaking findings in the field of customer experience research. Simply by adding an open-ended question to the beginning of existing customer feedback surveys, organizations may see an increase in customers’ satisfaction, repeat business, and spending.

Looking for Gratitude

Lead researcher Sterling Bone first came upon the potential for positive survey research when he was serving as a gospel doctrine teacher in Provo nearly a decade ago.

Now an associate professor of marketing at Utah State University, Bone was then “one of BYU Marriott’s young bright scholars asking good questions,” Money says. With advice fresh from a new-faculty training—which encouraged him to seek gospel inspiration in his research—Bone prepared for an upcoming Sunday School lesson about the ten lepers.

“I was intrigued by the value of gratitude in deepening the relationship between the Savior and the leper who returned,” Bone says. “I saw that thank-you as coming from a customer to—if you will—the provider, the Savior.”

That insight sparked a question: if customers were encouraged to say thank you to service providers, could that opportunity in turn strengthen the relationship and loyalty between consumers and organizations?

The default approach to customer feedback surveys, observes Bone, is typically to ask what went wrong and then provide some sort of recovery, usually financial, to compensate. Bone found himself wondering why we can’t we encourage customers to give compliments and express positive feedback rather than condition them to look for the negative and seek restitution.

Although asking for positive feedback wasn’t unheard of—many companies actively solicit and value positive feedback—no research had been done on the impact of that approach. “We found anecdotal evidence,” says Money, “but there was no science behind it or any measurement of its impact.”

Bone reached out to colleagues at BYU Marriott and beyond, and the team got to work. In addition to Money and DeTienne, team members include BYU Marriott adjunct professor Katie Liljenquist, Katherine Lemon from Boston College, Clay Voorhees from Michigan State University, and Paul Fombelle from Northeastern University.

Changing the Future

The team’s initial investigations revealed that by simply asking customers to reflect on a positive aspect of their experience, companies could impact the customers’ perceptions of the experience—and influence future purchase behavior.

“When we first ran our initial studies, we couldn’t believe it,” Bone says. “We ran nearly a dozen to be sure it wasn’t just an artifact of our design.”

The team’s pinnacle paper, “‘Mere Measurement Plus’: How Solicitation of Open-Ended Positive Feedback Influences Customer Purchase Behavior,” published in the February 2017 issue of the Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), details the strongest evidence for the influence of inviting customers to think positive. Working with a large portrait-studio chain, the researchers added a single open-ended question to the beginning of an existing feedback survey: “What went particularly well during your most recent visit?”

Customers who were asked for a compliment made 9percent more purchases and spent 8percent more money at the studio over the next year than those who took the same survey without a positive solicitation. Traditional numerical satisfaction measures were also significantly higher when preceded by a compliment request.

“We didn’t even create a new survey,” DeTienne says. “It was the same survey the company was already doing, just with one added question at the beginning. The effect, we feel, is pretty strong.”

The results held as the team extended its research in a business-to-business context: users who were asked at the end of a software trial to describe features they particularly liked spent 32 percent more on the products over the next year than users who weren’t asked for a compliment.

The researchers noted that it makes sense to expect great results from a positive solicitation when the customer has a great experience—for example, when the photographer captures great smiles and memorable portraits from shy children. But what happens when a customer has a two-hour wait with a fussy child and no good photos to show for it? You might not expect the request for a compliment to go over too well, says DeTienne.

The data, however, tells a different story: “We actually found that the positive solicitation approach worked well, regardless of whether the experience itself was positive,” DeTienne says. Encouraging a compliment at the beginning of the satisfaction survey raised the scores even when the customer had a negative experience. A compliment request, suggest the researchers, could potentially mitigate and even repair service or product failures.

Asking for the positive “opens up the mindset of the customer to think what did go well and maybe takes a little bit of the poison out of the pie,” Bone adds. “Even those who expressed lower satisfaction in the portrait-studio survey after a positive solicitation still saw lifts in repurchase behavior.”

Re-Creating the Past

The researchers aren’t sure exactly why positive solicitations have so much power to influence future customer behavior—but they have a few ideas.

“Perceptions of customer experiences are malleable,” says Money. While it has been traditionally held that satisfaction surveys capture a customer’s static experience, the researchers suggest that by asking customers to concentrate first on the positive aspects of their experience, a survey can, in a way, mold their memory enough to affect perceptions of the past and behavior in the future.

How the question is asked also makes a difference. Responding to an open-ended question, versus choosing a number on a scale to determine “how likely are you to recommend this to a friend,” gives customers a chance to re-remember the experience—with a positive twist.

“Numerical scales impose an artificial ceiling on satisfaction,” Bone says. “With an open-ended request for a compliment, you can raise the satisfaction level and loyalty of even a highly satisfied customer. As they share their story, there’s no limit.”

Seeing the Good

For the research team, investigating the power of positive surveys is about more than giving organizations better tools to solicit feedback and influence perception. They see distinct benefits for the customers as well, including an increased level of optimism and happiness.

“Customers really want to feel good about their experiences, commercial or not, and inviting them to think positively has positive psychological effects,” says Bone. “As a society and as a marketplace, we’ve become so negative, and that takes a toll on our individual and collective welfare.”

Encouraging customers to reflect on the positive in their day-to-day commercial experiences can help alleviate this negativity. “Through positive psychology research, we learn that looking at the good tends to make people happy, so you’re improving lives and literally increasing happiness by helping people see the good,” DeTienne adds.

Building Relationships

Even with all the benefits a simple compliment request can bring, the researchers caution organizations to take care in applying these results.

“We know this is a powerful effect, we know it has an impact on the psychology of the consumer; therefore, I think there needs to be good stewardship on the part of the businesses in how they use it,” Bone says. He worries about the potential for even well-meaning corporations to use the research to manipulate performance measures—and even customers.

“We need to be careful that we aren’t distorting the actual experience, that we aren’t manipulating customers just to increase incentives,” Bone says. The healthcare field, for example, uses patient satisfaction data to qualify for funding, and other sectors use positive feedback to compensate and recognize employees. Bone considers it inauthentic and ineffective for companies to push too hard for high ratings.

To avoid manipulation, the researchers suggest a partial rollout of positive solicitations: add a compliment request to an existing survey, but give it to only a portion of customers initially. That way, companies can measure the impact the solicitation has and recalibrate their data analysis accordingly, without comparing results from the new survey to past numbers.

A focus on soliciting compliments and building loyalty doesn’t mean a customer survey can’t also be used to highlight areas for improvement, which is why many companies engage in market research in the first place. DeTienne recommends constructing a short survey (three to five questions) that begins with a positive solicitation and ends with an open-ended request for any other feedback, trusting that the customer will point out any product or service failings without encouraging them to look back for negative aspects of the experience.

Investigating More

Even as their results are garnering attention in academic and real-world forums, the research team has more to investigate. “We are looking into some basic questions: when does this effect work, how does it work, why does it work, under which circumstances does it work best, and when should it be avoided?” says DeTienne. The team is also examining the effect of positive solicitations across various cultural and minority experiences.

So far, the researchers have yet to find the limit for bringing positivity and gratitude into market research. Their next (and currently unpublished) study examines what they term the you’re-welcome effect. Initial results suggest that responding to compliments, like by giving the customer a coupon, takes the effect of positive solicitations up another notch.

“There’s no ceiling to this effect so far,” Bone says. “Inviting individuals to give positive feedback, and then turning around and saying thank you for that feedback, opens up a dialogue that extends the relationship and deepens loyalty over time.”


By Sara Smith Atwood
Photography by Bradley Slade

About the Author
Sara Smith Atwood worked in magazines before becoming a freelance writer. A BYU graduate, she lives in Orem, Utah, with her husband and their two children.

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