Net Promoter Measures The Wrong Thing (or Why I Don’t Like United Airlines)

by Jared Spool

How likely am I to recommend United Airlines to someone else? If asked this question, I’d answer that it’s pretty likely, especially if that person lives here in the greater Boston area.

Of all the major airlines, United has the best service out of Boston. The only other options if you need to travel all over the country are American, Delta, and US Airways. Those three options deliver far worse service than United does.

This means, if I was included in a UA Net Promoter survey, I’d give them a 7 or above. That’s a good score for Net Promoter.

My score is a great demonstration of why Net Promoter doesn’t work. You see, I hate United Airlines. With a passion. As airlines go, they are really quite bad. I fly them almost every week and almost every trip, I have some experience with poor service and a bad relationship. Granted, there have been some trips where nothing bad happened, but nothing remarkably good happened either.

However, my trips with American, Delta, and US Airways are much worse. I will continue to fly United until someone better comes along, but I don’t expect that to happen any time soon. (I do like Virgin America a lot, and JetBlue or Southwest, but they don’t fly where I need them go as reliably as United, so I can’t use them often.)

I’m not recommending United Airlines because I like them. I’m recommending them because they are better than the other choices.

Net Promoter isn’t scoring my loyalty, because I’m not loyal. (I’m trapped, which is quite different.)

It’s not capturing my overall dissatisfaction with the airline. In fact, if everyone answers the survey for the same reasons I do, they look pretty good.

I think Net Promoter Score is an ineffective instrument for measuring how your customers feel about you. A better instrument is something more rigorous, like the Gallup CE11 Customer Engagement Score.

The CE11 has eleven questions, which we weight (as a Guttman Scale), including a Net Promoter-like referral question. But that referral question is weighted low, with questions like “Do you think [the brand] would take care of you if there was a problem?” or “I’m proud to be a customer of [the brand].” There are businesses that I’d score high on these other questions, but United Airlines wouldn’t be one of them.

These days, many of our clients are relying on the Net Promoter instrument (and its close brethren) to assess how they are meeting their customers needs. We warn the teams we’re working with to be careful — they may not be getting a complete picture of what’s happening and how their customers are experiencing their designs.