If you've bought a cellphone, a motor vehicle, a home appliance, a $5 cup of coffee, or anything else resulting in an offer to take a customer satisfaction survey, chances are at some point a salesperson has requested that you respond to the survey with all perfect scores.
Most commonly, the request takes the form of emotional blackmail: "If you don't give me all 5s," or whatever a perfect score happens to be, "it counts as a 'fail,' and I'll lose my bonus" (or some other dire consequence).
Other times, it's a direct imperative: "Please rate us with all 5s." The request might be accompanied by a bribe. Customers may even face retribution for giving imperfect scores.
Sometimes, it is less direct -- a salesman showing a customer a sample survey with all perfect scores filled out, or boasting that he "always" gets all 5s.
"Allison," a professional speaker who asked me not to use her real name, discussed the surveys she once administered for a seminar company. "You show [customers] how to fill it out, and of course, you [fill] in the '10s' [the maximum score]. And then you make a joke: 'Oh, well, 10 is really average. Most people give us 20s.'"
The employee may try to place a social burden on the critical customer: "If you feel you're unable to give us a perfect score, you need to talk to us about it."
Some people may even employ subliminal methods. Allison describes how her former colleagues would do this in their presentations. They'd call attention to particular items and say things like, "Oh, this is a '10!' So you gotta write this one down."
And, of course, when all else fails, employees may simply have their friends, family, and co-workers fill out the surveys (or do it themselves) to ensure all 5s.
However, the reason for survey data manipulation is always the same: bad corporate culture.
"If you didn't get high evaluations… they didn't schedule you," says Allison of her former employer. "We only get paid when we work, and if they're not giving you days to work, you're not" getting paid.
In other circumstances, an employee's paycheck -- or even the job itself -- may be genuinely on the line. One anonymous car saleswoman writes in an online forum:
I didn't want to have to ask for 5's if i didn't deserve them, but at the end of the day, i can lose a [expletive] load of $$$$$$ if i don't get them. so do you think that I am not going to ask... like hell i won't.
According to Doug Williamson, president and CEO of The Beacon Group, there has been a huge shift in corporate America in the past five years toward "facts by numbers" -- leading to stricter measurement and more accountability for managers and employees at all levels. This, in turn, results in an overreliance on surveys. Consequently, "there's no question that salespeople are being encouraged to have their customers [inflate survey] numbers."
Williamson warns against tying compensation too closely to survey results, as well as putting too much emphasis on one survey. Overreliance on one data point in a vacuum is fairly useless, even without the risk of data manipulation.
More fundamentally, he urges companies to adopt a less strict culture through better executive education and more transparency in operations.
The goal of surveying, after all, is not to get perfect scores. It's to learn.