When 7 = 9 or Where customer satisfaction surveys fail

Claire, a quality manager at the European head-office of a global tech company, navigates through the intricacies of customer satisfaction. It goes beyond designing questionnaires and chew over answers. As a leader in its field, Claire’s company highly values customer satisfaction and thrives on it. Therefore, on a scale from 1 to 10, no less than marks from 8 and above are expected. 7 leads to an inquiry. 6 and below will generate consequences on bonuses and business decisions. Most fellow European readers will already have noticed that “7” means ‘I am satisfied. The service or product matches my expectations.” whereas for North American respondents, “7” is more reserved. Not only marking is different, but for some cultures, 9s and 10s are too far-reaching while for others, a mark below 6 is humiliating. Those unsatisfied clients would prefer to avoid the survey rather than to express discontentment so directly.


When 7 here equals 9 there, how, as Claire, do you analyze customer satisfaction surveys? How clear-cut are those surveys in regards to assessment habits shaped during our early education? 

Assessment in educational systems

In a few weeks (on Dec. 3rd to be precise), the OECD will release the results of the last PISA inquiry. The press will thoroughly comment on the ranking of the participating countries. More importantly, educational policymakers will scrutinize the report and heed OECD’s recommendations. PISA and other international studies such as TIMSS and PIRLS from Boston College influence educational systems are introducing shared practices (read more in French).

Meanwhile, in terms of assessment, educational systems convergence matches the speed of the tectonic plaques. Having taught in different school systems and trained teachers in various countries, I can testify first hand that cultural differences towards assessment are here to stay. Canada, one of the most progressive states regarding pupils’ assessment, encounters protests from worried parents and educators. 

When metrics overpass cultural differences

Let’s come back to our customer satisfaction survey. Limited to one cultural area, in other words within a shared scale, it is easier to analyze them. Across cultures, surveys are less accurate. Even if algorithms could mitigate cultural differences, the costs of such adjustments would not be worth it. Let alone the issue of surrogation (see HBR article “Don’t Let Metrics Undermine Your Business” by Micheal Harris and Bill Tayler), and culture can derail metrics, reinforce biases and lead to rough decisions.

Please don’t take me wrong: of course, driving a business requires metrics! I would even argue that smileys, colors, or metaphors are no miracle solution. Indeed, colors and metaphors have diverse meanings throughout different cultures. 

So, let’s keep metrics and take some precautions.


Wariness: Keep in mind that even the more sophisticated metrics offer a broad view. It is a cliché too often forgotten: the cart is not the territory.


Customer experience: The customer experience is not limited to consumption and satisfaction survey. To thoroughly assess customers’ needs, explicit and, even more importantly, implicit expectations, more and more global companies develop ‘customers experience” services. That is a way to deepen commercial relations, unmask blind spots, and transform clients into ambassadors!


Cultural awareness: Claire’s job is secured! Not only because quality is a core issue to meet business standards, but thanks to her European educational background, she can understand that a 7 given by German clients poses no threat to the high standards set by her management. Meanwhile, this cultural awareness should be let to personal experience but identified and known through the decisional chain.


Mitigation: First-line managers can overprotect employees whose incentives are automatically impacted by customer satisfaction survey. Complementary metrics and negotiated mitigation should be applied to bonuses and performance reviews. I will come back in a future post on this culturally sensitive matter!


Global or local companies, conglomerates or small businesses would benefit from curiosity towards the culture of their clients and go beyond metrics. Have you experienced cultural differences in the way customers respond to surveys? How did you handle those diverse responses? Or, do you know an academic paper on this subject? Please, feel free to share!

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