By: Jim Stone
Imagine, for a moment, the following scenario: Jane Doe has owned her 2008 Sunbeam Alpine for 5 years and just had it serviced by her dealer. A survey company, acting on behalf of and in the name of Sunbeam Motors, sends her a service satisfaction survey to follow up on the visit. Here’s Jane’s response to the last open-ended question:
“I love the car and Route 66 Motors has been wonderful. But, it is getting time for something new and I have my eye on that new 2014 Triumph TR9. I hope they treat me as well as Sunbeam has!”
Should that comment, made by an identified customer to an identified survey sponsor, be ignored or should Sunbeam and/or Route 66 Motors be able to discuss it with Jane? The answer to that question depends on whether or not the “survey company” was a member of one of the world’s market research associations and subscribed to the research industry’s code of conduct.
Many professions today have codes of conduct. The most famous is probably physicians’ Hippocratic Oath. This oath is often shortened by the public to “above all else, do no harm”, but Hippocrates’ actual oath is very different and little used today. While not as widely known by the general public, the market research industry also has its codes of conduct. Like the Hippocratic Oath, there are multiple variations of this code (see, for example: CASRO, ESOMAR, MRS), but there are far more commonalities across them than differences. Let’s simplify the discussion and focus on what is arguably the most important aspect of all of the industry associations’ codes: respondent confidentiality. Since I am writing this from the US, I will use CASRO’s current version to represent them all:
Since individuals who are interviewed are the lifeblood of the Survey Research Industry, it is essential that Survey Research Organizations be responsible for protecting from disclosure to third parties–including Clients and members of the Public–the identity of individual Respondents as well as Respondent-identifiable information, unless the Respondent expressly requests or permits such disclosure.
There is also a related corollary to the code, the principle that
…specific action(s) may not be taken toward an individual Respondent as a result of his/her survey information and participation beyond those actions taken toward the entire database population group the Respondent by chance has been selected to represent.
There are modifiers to this in the full Code and some exceptions, but confidentiality and protection from research-initiated marketing is at the heart of our Code. CASRO is currently in the process of revising and updating their Code, but the current draft of the new one is, if anything, stronger relative to protecting respondent confidentiality. Which makes perfect sense, as it is as sacred to our industry as, to bring another profession into the mix, attorney-client privilege is to the legal industry. And I am going to suggest that this principle is outdated and due for a change.
Now that I’ve got the attention of most career researchers, I will modify that statement quite a bit. I have not gone completely over to the Dark Side. “Sugging” (Selling under the guise of research) is still a dirty word to me, but is a customer experience survey really market research? Over the years, I have often bristled when colleagues implied that customer satisfaction research was different from “real” market research. I argued that customer satisfaction was just one of the many specializations within the broader field of marketing research, no different than brand tracking, segmentation or new product testing, to name just a few others. We all utilized sampling, surveys, tabulation, advanced analytics and general research expertise to generalize to a population and provide insights and recommendations to management. And that has been my position for the last 25 years. But, I am now having second thoughts about this.
Research companies are not identified in any way in most of the customer experience surveys we send out. As far as the customer knows, the survey is a communication between them and a company they are doing business with. Would a personal response really be wrong, even when that response is a form of direct marketing? I would argue that avoiding a direct response to a customer is a far worse sin than marketing to them as a result of a business communication.
Let’s go back to the example that I began with: Jane Doe and her 2008 Sunbeam Alpine. I began by asking if her comment should be ignored. How would you feel if you’d just told a company that you loved their product but were planning to buy a competitor’s, and no one cared enough to get in touch with you? Would it not be appropriate for someone to call Jane and say: “We’ve loved having you as a customer and hope you will give us a chance to try and keep your business. Would you like to schedule an appointment to see the new 2014 Sunbeam Tiger? We think it will be perfect for your needs.” Our clients want us to be able to do that and research we have done with survey respondents tells us they want it, too. To date, it is only our code of conduct that is holding us back.
We know from our own studies that failure to act on surveys is one of the public’s primary complaints with the market research industry. Many refer to surveys as a “black hole”, where information goes in but nothing comes out and specifically cite this as a reason for not responding.
I think protecting respondent confidentiality is as relevant to traditional market research as ever; the problem is that it actually goes against the wishes of consumers, at least with respect to most customer experience research. And, if there is one industry that ought to be listening to the voice of the customer, it is ours!
Physicians no longer swear an oath to Apollo. Perhaps parts of our cherished Code of Conduct have become just as outdated, at least for customer experience researchers.