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Smiley faces – how good are they at measuring customer experience?

You must have seen them – those four buttons for you to press indicating whether you are happy or unhappy with a situation. There are two green buttons, one with a broad smile and one that is a bit tighter. There are two reddish coloured buttons with turned down corners of the mouth. Since we are in the business of customer experience and measuring happiness, these toy-like devices have always intrigued us. Who on earth presses them as they leave a toilet facility at a motorway service station? Surely people avoid them like the plague, concerned about picking up a disease. Surely it is only kids who take the trouble to press these buttons.

It's easy to identify weaknesses with this method of measuring customer satisfaction. People can attempt to sabotage the results by hitting an array of different buttons. There are only four buttons with no ability to record "neither/nor" (which might be a valid response). And are they representative? Most people simply ignore the terminals and pass them by.

Before we dismiss them as some sort of kid's toy, let's dig a bit deeper. They are the invention of a Finnish company called HappyOrNot which has sold 30,000 of them since their launch in 2009. They are usually installed close to the point where a customer experience takes place – a restroom facility, a terminal in an airport, the waiting room in an accident and emergency hospital. For sure there will be some random pressing of the buttons but the overall result can be incisive. For example, Angela Hughes, who is responsible for patient feedback for a group of hospitals in South Wales found that it was expensive and time-consuming trying to get patients to complete online questionnaires. Smiley terminals in an A&E facility can produce 250 responses per day. They can extract interesting results such as the time of day or the day of the week which is most problematic. This could lead to a deeper dive that shows whether more staff is required or whether the response from staff should be changed.

The very presence of the terminals can make a difference. Just prior to the London Olympics in 2012 Heathrow airport installed nine smiley terminals for a two-month trial. The aim was to ensure the best possible operations in readiness for the big games. The terminals had an immediate effect on the behaviour of the airport security guards. Instead of their lofty and sometimes distant approach to passengers, they began cracking jokes, smiling, and giving high fives. They clearly wanted to ensure happiness scores were as high as possible as it reflected on the way they did their jobs. The airport ordered a ton more.

In the business of measuring customer experience, there is no substitute for receiving feedback from customers. If possible the feedback should be from a representative group of customers and it should be collected in a considered and unbiased manner. However, customer feedback is expensive and can be time-consuming. Anything that helps our understanding of customers’ behaviours and attitudes has to be a good thing. Are we happy with this device? Well, yes; it certainly deserves a click on the pale green smiley face.


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