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Recently, students in a computer science class at Johns Hopkins took an interesting approach to their final exam. Instead of cramming all night, they boycotted it.

The professor graded on a curve – the highest grade in the class is converted to a perfect score, and all others are adjusted. So, if someone gets a 90, it becomes a 100, and everyone gets bumped up proportionately. If the highest grade is 0…

These students determined that unless they could get every single question right, it was better to take advantage of this loophole (which the professor closed immediately after this brilliant student maneuver!)

Gaming the NPS

Gaming the system is nothing new. Invent a system, and people figure out a way to shortcut it. Example: When companies use the Net Promoter Score (NPS) to gauge customer satisfaction, those who are impacted by those scores – the salespeople, the project managers, the operations people, etc. – can, and do, find ways to game it.

They want to score 9s and 10s – not because this means they’re stellar company reps who care about the customer above all, but because they’re compensated on that score. Like the Johns Hopkins students, it’s the number (and resulting bonus or incentive) that counts. It’s not about the learning or the customer experience! Who cares about that?

How do employees game the system? Step into a nationally recognized cell carrier store and find out. Managers run around, asking if they can help, if you’re finding what you need. At the end of a visit, they say, “On a scale of 1-10, what do we need to do to get a 9-10?” They might as well just ask, “On a scale of 9-10, what do you give us?”

People will ultimately do what they are paid to do. Those store managers know they are going to be compensated for a higher score, so they go all out to get it. Some even stoop to flat-out asking the customer for a good number!

4C Consultants recount a story of a car salesperson that delivered more than a vehicle to the customer. The service was outstanding, helpful, and respectful – until she pulled out a customer survey and proceeded to instruct the customer on how to answer questions because it would impact her bonus! If there’s a score for bold and completely out of line, she nailed it.

Personally, I receive the same “pressure” every time I step into the service department of my auto dealership. If my service advisor doesn’t get straight “5s”, he hears about… EVEN if the issue does not reside with him. Maddening!!!

Getting What You Pay For

The problem with any system, including NPS, is it can be inappropriately tied to compensation. Let’s focus on salespeople for a moment. Water will naturally follow the path of least resistance. Likewise, salespeople will figure out – quickly – how to maximize income with the least amount of effort. Here’s an example:

Say a salesperson has two product lines that she sells. One is far easier to move than the other. If she gets compensated equally for both lines, why on earth would she put in more effort to sell the harder product? To be honest, who would? It’s not worth it. Assume that the more difficult product has a higher gross margin for the business. The company has an interest in selling more, but they pay the salesperson the same amount. Again, why bother?

It’s only when the company pays for the desired outcome that the salesperson will focus on the harder-to-sell product. If they pay twice as much to sell the harder product, then one has to weigh the options. Do I sell twice as much of the “easier” products to make the same amount, or do I sell half as many of the difficult products? Then, only then, will they contemplate a change of behavior.

The point is this: If companies want a certain result from their employees, they need to make sure compensation systems support the desired outcome. They need to implement customer service and loyalty survey systems that are designed to extract the right information, information that will support the desired goals. Often, leaders don’t set up a feedback system to get what they want; they set it up to get what they think they want.

If leaders use any system, including NPS, in such a way that it allows people to game it rather than just do their jobs to the best of their ability, they’re setting themselves up for failure. They don’t get the data on revenue generation and customer loyalty they need to make informed decisions. Note I say “customer loyalty,” not “customer satisfaction.” Often, companies try to satisfy customers so they’ll get higher scores.

What IS relevant is whether a customer will refer others to the company. Leaders must implement systems that allow for this feedback, and then design compensation structures that reward good work – not the ability to outsmart the system.