Recently, I got a call from a friend of mine. He’s a pretty smart guy, but he began our call like this. “Hey, I may be an idiot because I don’t understand something that seems so mind-numbingly simple. Can you help me?” I asked him what was bothering him. He said that over the last couple of days he’s responded to a couple of surveys. One he got in the mail, another came as part of a sales receipt where he dialed into an 888 number. The third survey he had just finished and they had called him. In each instance he had been asked a question that made no sense from his point of view.

My friend owns a successful manufacturing company and has undergraduate and graduate degrees in finance, so he sees things pretty black and white. He has been a loyal customer to each of the brands to whom he’d responded to the survey information, so he was happy to take the time to complete each survey. In each survey, they asked how likely he would be to recommend their brand to others. He responded that he’d be likely to do so.

Seems simple enough, right?


In reality, as he said, he is very uncomfortable in imposing his point of view on others, unless they specifically ask him what he thinks; which is a rare occurrence, since he doesn’t tend to talk about such things regularly. Moreover, currently he isn’t recommending any of these brands to anyone. Not that he doesn’t love them; he said that he did. He just doesn’t go out of his way to do it, isn’t doing it and can’t remember the last time he did. This concept really bothered him.

He said to me, “Steve, the survey is worthless because it is going to report something that isn’t happening. They should have asked me if I was recommending them. Right?”

He continued, “It reminds me of a former salesman I had. He’d put into his sales forecasts projects he thought would close when he had no data to prove they would. He just felt good about the opportunity. In the end, he was trying to create a reality that really wasn’t there.

When I got rid of him, I personally went out and met with all our key customers and asked them for their honest appraisal of us. What I heard wasn’t all pleasant but it was what was keeping us from winning all of their business, so we went away and acted on what they told us.

Knowing that information was critical, it wasn’t pleasant but it was necessary. Since then, we’ve doubled our profitability and have not lost one customer. Our prices are 20% higher than our competitors. We couldn’t do this without customer advocates and we would have customer advocates without meeting their needs. We can’t meet their needs unless we know what they think.”

He’s right again. Being likely to recommend doesn’t mean you are or will. But it sure makes it easy to say “yes” and marketers feel better about reporting the fact that 85% of their customers are likely to recommend their products and services.

Sounds a lot better than currently 18% of our customers actively recommend us on a regular basis, doesn’t it? So his question to me on why this was is a good one, as was his point. What do you think?

Why is the phrase ‘are you likely to recommend’ used instead of ‘are you currently recommending’?

The answer might lie in the fact that if not enough people are recommending the brand.

Might it be because the experience falls short and that would require real and meaningful change? Perhaps it is because the brand does little to engage them as advocates? I couldn’t give him a good answer why there wasn’t (to use his terms) more of a ‘concrete present value’ to most of marketing.

In the past, I had given this friend Fred Reichheld’s book, ‘The Ultimate Question’ as well as, a couple of others such as ‘Wisdom of the Crowd’ and ‘Return on Customer’.

He liked each very much but in the end, his opinion was that it easier for marketers to keep creating TV commercials with good looking actors portraying happy customers and asking if consumers might possibly be willing to do something sometime in the unspecified future than truly engaging the customer, asking tough questions and instituting real change to meet their needs and requirements. That was my friend’s point of view. I thought that this story was worth sharing.

Here is mine: The one word you need to know to grow is ‘are’ (as in are you recommending).

It is time to stop talking about customer engagement and do it.

It is time to stop thinking we know what is in the minds of our customers and invite them into the process.

It is time to treat our best customers better than our next customer.

It is time to stop worrying about politics of making change and act.

It’s time to stop organizing focus groups that include people who have never bought our products and probably never will.

It is time to stop talking to our customers and start talking with them.

Steve Hershberger

Steve Hershberger