Why Asking Customers to Rate Restroom Cleanliness Is a Mistake


Last week, Lynn Davison and I were heading home to San Francisco from a client meeting in Seattle, and saw something new at SeaTac: A wireless restroom satisfaction polling tool. First thought? Pretty cool! A great way to get instant feedback from customers. And while I haven’t seen this before in the U.S., the last time I saw one of these was also in an airport – at Heathrow this summer, just after coming through security (I vaguely recall pounding that red button to the right…).

Which is what led me to my second and third thoughts: For something as easy to assess as cleanliness, why waste customer time asking their opinions on whether the restroom is clean or not? And of all the things affecting customer experience at SeaTac, why did they choose to measure that?

First things first: Why asking customers to measure restroom cleanliness is a mistake.

The basic principal behind customer experience improvement is to get “outside in” customer feedback, and analyze that information to figure out from the customers perspective what works, what doesn’t, and how well their expectations were met.

Because the experience “lives” in the minds of your customers, it can be challenging to measure expectations across different segments and customer types, because in many cases the perception of experience is highly variable. For example, what might be a great airport security experience for a family of four on their way to Disneyland is quite likely very different from mine - a business traveler late for his flight, stuck behind that same happy family.

This is why it’s important to focus customer experience research and data gathering efforts on those areas which are highly dependent on customer perception to understand how well that customer believes they are being served. Which brings us to the bathroom. I don’t doubt that a clean bathroom is an important thing to get right. But a clean bathroom isn’t a variable, subjective touchpoint (like security, or customs). Either the bathroom is clean, or it isn’t.

Which is why asking customers to rate something that doesn’t really require their input (don’t they have maintenance supervisors at SeaTac who could make this call with a 15 second visit?) is a waste of customer feedback, and a lost opportunity for airport management to get at customer insights on those areas where customer input is the only way to assess the experience.

So, first takeaway: If you’re going to ask your customers for feedback - and we strongly suggest you do - focus on those aspects of the experience that are both more subjective and that you can’t easily answer yourselves.

For customer experience research, is rating restroom cleanliness the most important thing to focus on?

We’ve not done any research on airport customer experience – yet. (Any airport execs reading this? We have some ideas we’d love to share with you…). But if we did, we’d approach it by helping to answer the same general questions commonly asked us over the last decade-plus helping companies improve customer experience: How can we determine what affects customer experience, and how well we’re doing? And among those things, where should we focus first to improve it?

The short answer is to analyze the data gathered through your outside-in customer feedback to understand which journeys, journey stages and touchpoints in each stage are most critical when it comes to driving customer loyalty. And related to that, to identify and remove dissatisfiers – because until those dissatisfiers are fixed, it’s really hard to drive loyalty.

Which once again brings us back to the airport bathroom. It’s a no brainer that this needs to be clean. Which is why the four point scale implied by the buttons in this photo won’t help the airport make many decisions – a clean bathroom is a dark green smiley face. Anything less isn’t clean. Which is why that maintenance person needs to have the checklist in hand to help them make that call (Trash cans empty? Toilets working? Soap dispensers full? Water on floor?), and the authority to fix it if there’s a problem.

Customer opinions should be asked in those areas where the experience is more subjective, and that can lead to actions resulting in a better experience. These might include journeys or touchpoints like customs, security, expedited processing and free luggage carts. Or using social media (Facebook, Twitter) and technology to keep travelers informed and answer questions. These are all things that can be done, and customer experience research can help identify and prioritize what should be done, to drive a better traveler experience.

Understanding customers’ perceptions of performance against their expectations is critical to improving experience in any business. That’s what will help you better understand what to focus on and how to effectively prioritize the specific service and experience improvements that will have the most impact on overall customer experience, and loyalty.

But the bathroom? Just set the standards that define “clean” and make sure your people keep them that way. Then focus your efforts on ways to understand and delight your travelers, no matter how different they may be.

Customer Experience Strategy, Get it Right to Drive Success

Other posts you might be interested in