Not Particularly Surprising

pH scaleHave you heard people telling you their NPS number? (perhaps with their chests puffed out…or maybe somewhat quietly – depending on the score). Further, have they been telling you that they must do all they can to retain or increase it?1

NPS – what’s one of those?

‘Net Promoter Score’, or NPS, is a customer loyalty metric that has become much loved by the management of many (most?) large corporations. It was introduced to the management world by Fred Reichheld2 in his 2003 HBR article titled ‘One number you need to grow’.

So far, so what.

But as most things in ‘modern management‘ medicine, once introduced, NPS took on a life of its own.

Reichheld designed NPS to be rather simple. You just ask a sample of subjects (usually customers3) one question and give them an 11-point scale of 0 to 10 to answer it. And that question?

‘How likely is it that you would recommend our company/product/ service to a friend or a colleague?’

You then take all your responses (which, incidentally, may be rather low) and boil them down into one number. Marvellous…that will be easy to (ab)use!

But, before you grab your calculators, this number isn’t just an arithmetic average of the responses. Oh no, there’s some magic to take you from your survey results to your rather exciting score…and here’s how:

  • A respondent scoring a 9 or 10 is labelled as a ‘Promoter’;
  • A scorer of 0 to 6 is labelled as a ‘Detractor’; and
  • A 7 or 8 is labelled as being ‘Passive’4.

where the sum of all Promoters, Detractors and Passives = the total number of respondents.

NPS calculation.jpgYou then work out the % of your total respondents that are Promoters and Detractors, and subtract one from the other.

You’ll get a number between -100 (they are all Detractors) and +100 (all Promoters), with a zero meaning Detractors and Promoters exactly balance each other out.

And, guess what…a positive score is desirable…and, over the long term, a likely necessity if you want to stay in business.

Okay, so I’ve done the up-front explanatory bit and regular readers of this blog are probably now ready for me to go on and attempt to tear ‘NPS’ apart.

I’m not particularly bothered by the score – it might be of some interest…though exceedingly limited in its usefulness.

Rather, I’m bothered by:

  1. what use it is said to be; and
  2. what use it is put to.

I’ve split my thoughts into two posts. This post deals with the second ‘bother’, and my next one will go back to consider the first.

Qualitative from Quantitative – trying to ‘make a wrong thing righter’

The sane manager, when faced with an NPS score and a ‘strategic objective’ to improve it, wants to move on from the purely quantitative score and ‘get behind it’ – they want to know why a score of x was given.

Reichheld’s NPS method covers this obvious craving by encouraging a second open-ended question requesting the respondent’s reasoning behind the rating just given – a ‘please explain’ comments box of sorts. The logic being that this additional qualitative data can then be provided to operational management for analysis and follow up action(s).

Reichheld’s research might suggest that NPS provides an indicator of ‘customer loyalty’, but…and here’s the key bit…don’t believe it to be a particularly good tool to help you improve your system’s performance.

There are many limitations with attempting to study the reasons for your system’s performance through such a delayed, incomplete and second-hand ‘the horse has bolted’ method such as NPS.

  • Which subjects (e.g. customers) were surveyed?
  • What caused you to survey them?
  • Which subjects chose to respond…and which didn’t?
  • What effort from the respondent is likely to go into explaining their scoring?
  • Does the respondent even know their ‘why’?
  • Can they put their (potentially hidden) feelings into words?…and do they even want to?

If you truly want to understand how your system works and why, so that you can meaningfully and sustainably improve it, wouldn’t it just be soooo much better (and simpler) to jump straight to (properly5) studying the system in operation?!

A lagging indicator vs. Operational measures

One of my very early posts on this blog covered the mad, yet conventional, idea of ‘management by results’ and subsequent posts have delved into ‘cause and effect’ in more detail (e.g. ‘Chain beats Triangle’).

My ‘cause and effect’ post ends with the key point that:

“Customer Purpose (which, by definition, means quality) comes first…which then delivers growth and profitability, and NOT the other way around!”

Now, if you read up on what Reichheld has to say about NPS, he will tell you that it is a leading measure, whereas I argue that it is a lagging one. The difference is because we are coming from opposite ends of the chain:

  • Reichheld appears to be concerned with growth and profitability, and argues that NPS predicts what is going to happen to these two financial measures (I would say in the short term);

  • I am concerned with customer purpose, and an organisation’s capability at delivering against its customers’ needs. This means that I want to know what IS happening, here and now so that I can understand and improve it …which will deliver (for our customers, for the organisation, for its stakeholders) now, and over the long term.

You might read the above and think I am playing with semantics. I think not.

I want operational measures on the actual demands coming in the door, and how my processes are actually working. I want first hand operational knowledge, rather than attempting to reverse engineer this from partial and likely misleading secondary NPS survey evidence.

“Managers learn to examine results, outcomes. This is wrong. The manager’s concern should be with processes….the concentration of a manager should be to make his processes better and better. To do so, he needs information about the performance of the process – the ‘voice of the process’. “ [‘Four Days with Dr Deming’]

Deming’s clear message was ‘focus on the process and the result will come’ and, conversely, you can look at results all you like but you’d be looking in the wrong place!

NPS thinking fits into the ‘remote control’ school of management. Don’t survey and interrogate. ‘Go to the gemba’ (the place where the work occurs).

 “But what about the Lean Start-up Steve?”

Some readers familiar with Eric Ries’ Lean Start-up movement might respond “but Eric advocates the use of customer data!” and yes, he does.

But he isn’t trying to get a score from them, he is trying to deeply engage with a small number of them, understand how they think and behave when experiencing a product or service, and learn from this…and repeat this loop again and again.

This fits with studying demand, where it comes in, and as it flows.

The Lean Startup movement is about observing and reflecting upon what is actually happening at the point of customer interaction, and not about surveying them afterwards.

To close – some wise words

After writing this post I remembered that John Seddon had written something about NPS…so I searched through my book collection to recover what he had to say…and he didn’t disappoint:

“Even though NPS is completely useless in helping service organisations improve, on our first assignment [e.g. as system improvement interventionists] we say nothing about it, because we know the result of redesigning the system will be an immediate jump in the NPS score…and because when this is reported to the board our work gets the directors’ attention.

It makes it easy to see why NPS is a waste of time and money. First, it is what we call a ‘lagging measure’ – as with all customer satisfaction measures, it assesses the result of something done in the past. Since it doesn’t help anyone understand or improve performance in the present, it fails the test of a good measure5 – it can’t help to understand or improve performance.” [Seddon, ‘The Whitehall Effect’]

Seddon goes on to illuminate a clear and pernicious ‘red herring’ triggered by the use of NPS:  the simple question of ‘would you recommend this service to a friend’ mutates to a hunt for the person who delivered the particular instance of service currently under the microscope. Management become “concerned with the behaviour of people delivering the service” as opposed to the system that makes such behaviour highly likely to occur!

I have experience of this exact management behaviour in full flow, with senior management contacting specified members of staff directly (i.e. those who handled the random transaction in question) to congratulate or interrogate/berate them, following the receipt of particularly outstanding6 NPS responses.

This is to focus on the 5% (the people) and ignore the 95% (the system that they are required to operate within). NPS “becomes an attractive device for controlling them”.


The title of this post follows from Seddon’s point that if you focus on studying, understanding and improving the system then, guess what, the NPS will improve – usually markedly. Not Particularly Surprising.

My next post called ‘How good is that one number’ contains the second part of my NPS critique.


1. This post, as usual, comes from having a most excellent conversation with a friend (and ex-colleague) …and she bought me lunch!

I should add that the title image (the pH scale) is a light-hearted satire of the various NPS images I found i.e. smiley, neutral and angry faces arranged on a coloured and numbered scale.

2. Reichheld has written a number of books on customer loyalty, with one of his more recent ones trying to relabel ‘NPS’ from Net Promoter Score to Net Promoter System (of management) …which, to put it mildly, I am not a fan of.

It reminds me of the earlier ‘Balanced Scorecard’ attempting to morph into a system of management. See ‘Slaughtering the Sacred Cow’.

Yet another ‘management idea’ expanding beyond its initial semblance of relevance, in the hands of book sellers and consultants.

Sorry, but that’s how I feel about it.

NPS is linked to the ‘Balanced Scorecard’ in that it provides a metric for the customer ‘quadrant’ of the scorecard …but, as with financial measures, it is still an ‘outcome’ (lagging) measure of an organisation’s people and processes.

3. The original NPS focused on customers, but this has subsequently been expanded to consider other subjects, particularly employees.

4. Being British (i.e. somewhat subdued), I find the labelling of a 7 or 8 score as ‘Passive’ to be hilarious. A score of 7 from me would be positively gushing in praise! What a great example of the variety inherent within customers…and which NPS cannot reveal.

5. For the ‘tests of a good measure, please see an earlier post titled ‘Capability what?’

6. Where ‘outstanding’ means particularly low, as well as high.


3 thoughts on “Not Particularly Surprising

  1. Yes, NPS becomes a distraction or worse, a weapon!
    Because “people” are hard to satisfy, they (when asked) will likely vent about the negative elements (the things they would like to see change) of; Employment with X company, or as a consumer of X companies services. Not Particularly Surprising….


  2. Good read Squire! I’ve stood by and observed organisations spend untold money developing technology to provide ‘real-time’ NPS from their multiple customer channels. The results are analysed to qualify support for strategies and business cases that justify projects…What a waste!


  3. My sentiments exactly, indeed I was asked to answer such a question recently and I directly asked the representative, ‘are you paid on the basis of my feedback’ to which the reply was ‘yes’. How arbitrary!

    Incidentally, much of Vanguard’s promotional material points to ‘increase your NPS score’! Bit naughty as it’s clearly something they don’t see as relevant but are promoting as a measure of success!


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