The Fallacy of Measuring Feelings, or how to Capture Lighting in a Bottle

Feelings cannot be measured.

Lighting cannot be caught in a bottle.

Cold Fusion is (for now) a dream.

The only difference between these three statements is that some people will actually believe that the first one is wrong.  They are the ones who will try to measure customer satisfaction or customer loyalty.  The same way that we can never answer the question of how much do we love something (feelings are, by definition, a non-finite quantity) or someone, we cannot determine how satisfied or loyal a customer really is.

All we do when we set out to measure these feelings is to capture an interpretation of a sentiment frozen in an instant- the moment they answer the question.  It is very likely that given a different set of environmental variables the same user will rate the same experience differently.  What was an “exceptional experience” before becomes an “acceptable interaction” after they get a parking ticket, and ends up being an “unacceptable transaction” when they get into an argument with their spouse later on.

The question is: why do we try to measure feelings?

Somewhere, someone convinced business leaders that the true measure of how well their business is doing is whether customers are satisfied.  However, this same person forgot to provide a definition of “satisfaction” that was measurable and repeatable.  Thus,we end up asking someone how satisfied they are with a transaction. Their answer, at least 80% of the time, is “satisfied”.

It reminds me of  an episode of Seinfeld when George wanted to find out if his date thought he was as satisfying as a risotto she had for dinner -which she adored.  Her answer (paraphrasing): “you cannot compare a risotto with a boyfriend when it comes to satisfaction”.

Are you trying to compare your experiences with risotto?

9 Replies to “The Fallacy of Measuring Feelings, or how to Capture Lighting in a Bottle”

  1. A lot of the penchant for measuring comes from the attitude: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

    In many cases this is correct – but not all. And strict, blind adherence to it can cause otherwise talented people to waste time and money.

    Measure what you CAN measure. Monitor what you CAN’T.

    Good article!

    Kevin Stirtz


  2. The fundamental catch is that, for as long people believe they themselves are conscious agents, they will believe consumers can accurately post-rationalise their own experiences in some meaningful and useful way.

    When it comes to customer satisfaction objective consumer measurement is a real curse; it encourages complaceny and, worse still, tends to make companies design their service around what can be measured. Disaster!

    Philip Graves
    Consumer Behaviour Expert
    author of “The Secret of Selling: How to Sell to Your Customer’s Unconscious Mind”


  3. Great comment. It is not our failure to understand the measurement systems, it is our failure to understand consumers that drive us down the road to measuring the wrong things.

    This is one of those things that would make great sense if people were to think of their consumers as they do of themselves. What are you thoughts when asked about your satisfaction? why do you think your customers would be different?

    If you take the time to identify with the consumers, you can then figure out what to measure…

    Thanks for the comment and for reading


  4. What are your thoughts on something like Fred Reichheld’s Net Promoter Score(NPS) and his “Ultimate Question”? That not only can we measure loyalty/satisfaction but that we need only ask one question(“How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?”).

    Is it, then, a matter of not just asking “Are you satisified?” but of digging deeper(ie asking the right questions) so that we get a better idea of the Why? behind that 8.2/10 CSAT score? or is the Why too mercurial such that anything we gather would be unreliable/untrustworthy?

    Even if neither the customer nor we can fully nuance and articulate — especially in black-and-white numbers my spreadsheet likes — the Why behind a moment-in-time rating/answer, surely the sum total, cumulative body of such interactive(ie working with customers) dialogue, probing and nuancing can be insightful and actionable — not perfectly illuminating but not completely worthless, either.

    Appreciate the insight. It’s a little refreshing to accept that some things can’t be measured.

    Russ Hatfield
    Seattle, WA


  5. I probably get this question about 2-3 times a week.

    The answer has been the same I had from the beginning. Anything that dares to imply that only one metric or data element can help you define your customers, their wants or needs, or how you perform is a fallacy.

    NPS is an arbirtrary measurement (why 8-10, why not 7-10 or 9-10), and it really does not measure much. Similar to CSAT, you are asking the customer to put their feelings and potential future mood into a number. The worst part of NPS, and similar single-metric systems, is that by rewarding and pushing for perfection we end up with people begging customers to give them a 10 (or 5, or whatever).

    Also, we never ask the questions they customers wants us to ask. We ask them what we think we should ask them. We measured success in our view of success – not the customer’s. How can we expect to deliver to customer’s expectations if we don’t measure them? We ignore what they want and ask them what we want… why? because we are asking the questions.

    Net Value of NPS, CSAT or any other method that measures a single sentiment from customers is not going to cut it. We need to do better…


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