NPS (Net Promoter Score) is a simple, cost effective and easily repeatable way to measure and track customer satisfaction for a brand. As with any analytical tool, though the question of how best to account for cultural variations when tracking NPS should be considered. Whether it is a case of things being ‘lost in translation’, of semantics or of interpretation, the same simple survey question might result in different responses dictated by the cultural background of respondents. Like the Rorschach Test, in which people see a variety of images in random inkblots, it is important to understand how NPS can best be used to discover what customers truly think about a brand or product.
The Problem with NPS
While simplicity is the strength of NPS, it can also be one of its key shortcomings. When considering cultural biases in NPS research, two main factors should be considered. First is the question itself - the wording and the underlying cultural meaning of the chosen words can significantly affect responses. Second is the answer - the responses offered and their meaning to an individual from a particular social context.
The NPS Question
Research papers offer crucial insights into how the specific translation of the NPS question into different cultural contexts can affect the insights gathered. The standard NPS question asks respondents to consider two factors, how likely they would be to recommend a product to a friend or colleague. Researchers have found that in Japan and Korea a lot more time is needed to build friendships than in many other cultures, resulting in a general cautiousness about taking actions that could threaten that burgeoning friendship, such as giving a bad recommendation. This leads to generally lower NPS scores in surveys conducted across these countries than elsewhere. In the USA, on the other hand, the notion of friendship is much less ring-fenced and the word ‘friend’ generally has a less significant, weighty meaning than in some other languages.
The NPS Answer
When it comes to answering the NPS question, a 1- 10 scale may seem universal and uncomplicated. But as this scale is used to express nuanced emotions, things are not so clear-cut. Research has examined national and individual characteristics affecting survey “response styles”. Social groups ranking high in ‘uncertainty avoidance’, such as Japan, tend to write fewer positive reviews than those with higher ‘extraversion’, and researchers for example have found that customers from some cultures, such as those from Spanish-speaking countries, tend to offer more positive survey responses than those from Japan or China. Within Europe, Greek respondents stand out as the most positive, while Northern and Western Europeans are the least. North Americans (the original test group by the creator of the NPS, Reischheld) generally give more positive and animated survey feedback than Europeans, meaning that the whole NPS scale is arguably skewed in favour of “positive” cultures. Differences can even be seen between different cultural groups within countries; for example in Malaysia with ethnically Malay survey respondents tending to respond markedly differently to Malaysian-born Chinese.
Several solutions have been brought forward by academics and market researchers. One of the main solutions is to consciously correct for cultural biases in survey responses. Comparing data from different countries using identical criteria may cause inconsistency: a respondent marking of ‘8’ in one country, might be another’s ‘10’ in a different country. Hence, it might make most sense to weight an 8 from a “positive” culture differently to an 8 from a more reserved one. This can be a good approach if minimal correction is needed to a simple survey, but analysts should exercise caution to avoid eliminating evidence of genuinely poor performance.
Another common solution is adding a further question to get insight into a negative or non-committal answer. Open-ended response analysis would be more time-consuming, but can provide vital additional context to the headline score. Additionally, one should also consider the issues of language, definition and choice of words, i.e. substituting the more emotional ‘friend’ by the neutral ‘colleague’ or ‘acquaintance’ may be appropriate, if considered judiciously.
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