The Fallacy of Ample Parking
Quite a few years ago I visited a number of car dealers as I debated about which new car to buy. When I pulled into one dealer’s lot for the first time I saw a large sign hanging in the large plate glass window in front. “Ample parking in rear” it read. Given the difficulties in finding parking at times in the metro area, having a sign telling you where to go to find some I initially thought of as being very helpful. After the usual painful negotiations, with my trade-in being worth next to nothing and some kid at the dealer telling me I was being foolish if I did not take out a large loan to finance the car, I ended up buying one. (Note to dealers, having your finance person tell your customers that they are being foolish is not a good tactic, and they may begin to question whether they are really being foolish in dealing with you at all.)
A few weeks after I had possession of my new car, I received a survey in the mail from the manufacturer wanting to ask me about my car buying experience. The very first question on the survey was “Was there ample parking when you visited the dealership”? I was taken aback slightly. Was it a coincidence that the dealer was making a big deal of his “ample parking” and that it happened to be the first question in a survey evaluating my car buying experience?
A few more weeks later I visited the dealer again for service to my new car. As I approached the service counter, where the service manager was to complete the paperwork on what kind of service I needed, I noticed a note tapped down to the counter. The note said “shortly after being serviced here, you will receive a survey in the mail asking about your service experience. If you can’t fill out the survey this way (and a completed survey was attached to the note showing the customer how they should fill out the survey) please let us know now”. Ok, now I wondered “are they proactively trying to head off any service issues, or are they trying to cook the books on how customers respond to the survey”?
The cynic in me said that the pattern of behavior I was seeing was an indication of a dealer who wanted to have good survey results and was trying to lead his customer down a path to insure that it was so. My guess was that he would achieve a performance rating that he could then use to his advantage in his marketing campaigns if he achieved certain scores.
There are many organizations out there that strive very hard to have exceptional survey results. When they are achieved celebrations ensue, especially when the results are tied to performance or incentive plans. I would argue though, that there should be an equal celebration when results come back that are just average. Why? If the results on a survey come back and are outstanding, you can’t learn as much regarding additional improvement as when average results are achieved. In highly performing organizations when average results are achieved it means you are asking the tough questions, questions that if properly constructed can point the way towards additional improvements. Asking feel good questions that achieve high results only accomplish what the name implies, they make you feel good, but they don’t give as much insight into improving performance.
Additionally, when you see a more average response, what you also usually see is more variance to the questions within the organization as your begin to drill down. This variance in responses means that some parts of the organization were able to achieve better scores that other parts of the organization. And that means that the organization now has an opportunity to learn from itself if it so chooses. The variance within the organization presents a potential learning and improvement opportunity by which to take organizational performance to new heights. If the organization achieves a very high score on a survey item, as I drill down deep into the organization I am much more likely to find similarly high scores, a uniformity of responses. This sameness in responses constricts the organization’s ability to compare differing responses and see which differences in actions or behaviors led to those differing response patterns. Uniformity means that the organization has less potential to learn and improve from itself.
Of course if an organization is uniformly low on an item – scoring poorly, that can be a sign of fundamental issues that cut across the board and the processes represented by that item may have to be reinvented on an organization-wide basis.
The underlying question though is why is an organization doing a survey in the first place? Is the desire to do a survey part of a genuine effort to improve performance? If so average responses should be celebrated for the opportunity they represent. If the desire to do a survey is “monitoring” or measuring managers on their scores then there is a risk that the managers will find ways to achieve exceptionally high scores so they can say we are doing well. Somewhat self-delusional behavior – but remember organizations get what they reward – if they are rewarding self-delusional behavior they should not be surprised at what they accomplish. Instead of rewarding the absolute scores themselves, achieving a high benchmark on a survey item that may limit the amount of learning that can occur, organizations should consider if it can be more productive to reward the learning behaviors, the continuous trek towards improvement within the organization that it desires to have demonstrated. In other words reward the behavior not the number.
A new twist on benchmarking; organizations may want to benchmark those survey items that allow them to achieve somewhat average responses. In other words which are the best survey items that give them mediocre scores – and enhance an organization’s ability to improve?
I think that an organization that asks the tough questions in the spirit of actually wanting information the help drive performance, which celebrates average responses for the opportunity they represent, that rewards improvement behaviors rather then absolute scores, will outperform. And isn’t that what it is all about anyway?
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
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