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Recommendations Are Complex

Christina Stahlkopf looked at the Net Promoter Score (NPS) in a short 2019 Harvard Business Review article. The upshot of the work was that recommendations are complex. We want consumers to be simple but they consistently (and inconsiderately) do things to mess up the metrics that describe them.

NPS As A Compass

Stahlkopf takes a reasonable and balanced view of NPS. Of course, it isn’t the magical metric through which you can run your firm that was initially suggested. That said, this doesn’t imply that it can’t be useful. Stahlkopf uses the metaphor of a compass which seems pretty apt. NPS is a big-picture metric. If your Net Promoter Score is tanking then this is very unlikely to be a good sign. You are likely going in the wrong direction. Still, NPS isn’t really sophisticated enough to allow you to run an entire firm. Why don’t we use the compass much in everyday life? Because we have a whole range of different more sophisticated tools which are often much better. Not least your phone’s GPS. Typically there will be street signs to help too. There are certainly situations where a compass might be the key tool, but a compass isn’t the one tool you need in life.

Recommendations Are Complex

The core point of Stahlkopf’s article revolves around the challenges that NPS has in picking up complex consumer behavior. NPS doesn’t measure behavior but expressed willingness and so clearly doesn’t link to behavior as such.

NPS classifies respondents into promoters, passives, and detractors. Each person has to be one thing or another. But people are often ‘all of the above’. They don’t like some elements of a brand but they do like others. They don’t just recommend or not, they tailor recommendations to the person to whom they are directing the recommendation. Respondents think complex ideas like: “I personally don’t like [fill in the blank] type of food but I might recommend the restaurant to people who do as it is a fun experience”.

Ambivalence Is Common

Furthermore, respondents can both recommend and detract.

Indeed, our survey revealed that 52% of all people who actively discouraged others from using a brand had also actively recommended it. And across the NPS scale, we found consumers who had both actively promoted and actively criticized the same brand.

Stahlkopf, 2019
Recommendations Are Complex

Consumers even use their responses to signal their unhappiness with some aspects of the brand but still were happy to commend the good parts.

Another consumer hated Walmart, giving the company a zero on the NPS scale. “The stores are filthy and overcrowded,” he noted. But, he continued, “I recommended Walmart to a friend because they had an inexpensive desk that would be perfect for the friend’s room.”

Stahlkopf, 2019

Going Forward

The recommendation in the article is to use earned advocacy which focuses on actual reported behaviors. I don’t want to get into the details of this, not least because I’m guessing the actual industry you are in could make a notable difference.

For now, I’ll just note that recommendations are complex. This makes it hard to understand what consumers are up to. This can be frustrating but it keeps market researchers in jobs which is a good thing given I teach them.

For more on NPS see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Read: Christina Stahlkopf (2019) Where Net Promoter Score Goes Wrong, Harvard Business Review, October 18, 2019

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