Should we be so hung up on recommendations?
Monday 2nd Oct, 2017
By Alison Huntington.
Passing through Heathrow Terminal 3 recently, I was accosted by a woman with an iPad who wanted to ask me a few questions about my experience at Heathrow that day. Being British, and therefore socially awkward, instead of telling her I’d really rather read my newspaper, I said “Yes, of course.”
Among the pretty mundane questions she went on to ask me was one about whether I’d recommend Terminal 3.
“Erm, yes, I suppose,” came my response, with half an ear on the tannoy announcements.
“How likely? Nine out of ten?”
“Er, yes, OK.”
Thinking about it afterwards, I wondered how useful this data really was. Heathrow Terminal 3 was clean, with clear signage, and I got to my plane on time. But it wasn’t really any different from my experience at Terminal 5, or Gatwick, or JFK. And I certainly haven’t rung up any pals since, telling them: “Change your flights! You simply must experience Terminal 3 to believe it!”
It reminded me of something we’ve seen in the data we’ve gathered over the last couple of years about clients’ perceptions of consulting firms. Clients are consistently more willing to recommend a consulting firm than they are to say the quality of its work is high, or that it adds value worth more than the fees it charges. In total, 89% of clients say they either have recommended a firm, or would be willing to do so. That’s far higher than any positive perception about quality of work or value added. As a result, we often find ourselves scratching our heads, wondering why so many clients are willing to recommend firms that they don’t appear to be hugely impressed with.
I think my Heathrow experience has something to do with it.
When asked a precise question (“How good is firm X at business strategy?”) a client is asked to think about something specific. It requires them to cast their mind back, and make an estimation of that particular thing. An equivalent for Heathrow would be, “How clean is the airport today?”; to which my answer would have been “Pretty clean, although the table in Wetherspoons was a bit sticky.”
But being asked whether you have or would recommend a firm puts a client on the spot—much like I was at Heathrow—to weigh up all their experiences with that firm and respond in a simplistic, binary manner. Basically, are they alright or not?
Of course, there’s a difference between a client going out on a limb to recommend a firm to the board, putting their personal reputation at stake by doing so, and saying they’d recommend a firm in an anonymous survey. But, overall, I wonder if firms get too hung up on this sort of data. Basically, Heathrow Terminal 3 did the job. And basically, all that this recommendation data tells us is that most consulting firms do, too.