Three Reasons to Not Use the NPS in Higher Education

Grant DeRoo

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In the past 15 years, the Net Promoter Score (NPS) has become a standard (perhaps the standard) measure of customer loyalty and satisfaction. Created by a partner at Bain & Co., the NPS was designed to help company executives establish a simple understanding of how their customers felt about the company. The NPS asks one question with a 0–10 response scale: How likely is it that you would recommend [Company Name] to a friend or colleague? Customers are sorted into one of three categories based on their response and a total Net Promoter Score can be calculated with an accompanying formula.

The Net Promoter Score has two key advantages. Firstly, it is simple. The NPS asks a straightforward question that nearly everyone (including management) understands. Secondly, by most measures, it works. NPS scores are highly correlated with repurchase decisions and referrals.

Although the NPS has its drawbacks (simplicity can be a double-edged sword), it is generally considered to be a useful tool for indicating customer satisfaction, repurchase probability, and likelihood to “evangelize.”

However, the same tool that is effective in one industry may be inappropriate in another. My work in higher education has led me to believe that the Net Promoter Score is ill suited for assessing satisfaction and attitudes in higher education for three primary reasons:

  1. We do not recommend colleges the same way we recommend other products or services. One of the limitations of the NPS is that the question focuses on likelihood to recommend the company/organization to someone else. This is useful for products or services that everyone uses and things that people use in the same way. For instance, I have no reservations recommending my florist to a friend because he or she is going to use that florist for the same thing I did: to buy flowers. The same is not true for colleges and universities. The experience I had at my alma mater may not be a good fit for someone else. My recommendation depends on the particular interests, needs, goals, and concerns of the person I’m recommending the college to. Thus, it’s unfair to ask someone if they would indiscriminately recommend a college to a friend or colleague when that recommendation can (and should) depend on the person I’m going to make a recommendation to.

 

  1. We personalize college choices more than we personalize other goods or services. It is not unfair to say that we internalize our college decisions more than we internalize any other purchase. After all, I don’t know of anyone who walks around in a sweatshirt emblazoned with the name of the place where they buy their groceries and I don’t see many bumper stickers advertising the place where people get their oil changed. Heck, we don’t even advertise where we work or what we do for a living, which is a significant part of our identities. But we broadcast to the world where we went to school and where our kids go to school. The college you attend becomes part of you and it’s a reflection of who you are. With that in mind, is it fair to expect college “customers” (students, alumni, parents) to accurately and objectively rate how likely they are to recommend the school to someone else? No, it’s much more likely that college NPS scores are inflated by responses that reflect more about what the respondent wants others to think than about how the respondent views his or her own experience.

 

  1. NPS responses are rarely segmented even though college experiences vary. Rarely are NPS scores segmented by respondent characteristics. NPS scores are more commonly reported in aggregate. This approach is fine for companies with goods or services that are uniform and standardized. My experience at a drugstore is probably very similar to the customer who came in after me. However, college experiences vary significantly and, as a result, one’s likelihood to recommend the college can vary widely. College experiences are impacted by a host of factors, not the least of which are what you studied, where you lived (at home or on campus), how academically prepared you were, and how quickly you found employment after graduation. Considering how different a college experience can be, and how many factors are beyond a college’s control, colleges and universities are limited in the actions they can take based on a Net Promoter Score.

The Net Promoter Score can be useful in many scenarios and it can be quite effective as a simple indicator of brand loyalty. But there are elements of a college experience that significantly limit how effectively the NPS can assess customer satisfaction and brand loyalty in higher education. There are alternatives that colleges and universities should explore to better understand brand perceptions or the extent to which students and alumni are brand ambassadors.

Stamats conducts dozens of internal and external audience surveys each year to understand perceptions of an institution’s brand and how effectively its brand identity is communicated to the outside world.

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