Perspective: Shine A Light On The Dark Art Of Supplier Traveler Surveys

This perspective piece by Management Alternatives' Will Tate was originally published in the Aug. 22, 2011, issue of Business Travel News.

We've all been in the dark (figuratively speaking, that is). That place where something seemed wrong, but you couldn't put your finger on it? Or you didn't know what it was that you didn't know? Travel managers may be in that situation now ... and not know it. [more]
If you're a buyer, think of your latest supplier survey and ask these simple questions:
1. Who wrote the survey?
2. Who chose the stakeholders?
3. Who chose the questions?
4. Who chose the rating scale?
5. Who owns the process?
Were the answers "you," the buyer? If not, ask: What is the real purpose of the survey, and for whom is the survey really designed?

Control Your Survey Process
Consider these questions:
1. Was key supplier feedback included in the results?
2. Were traveler comments permitted? If so, were you provided with technology necessary to intelligently interpret your traveler comments, or were you just handed a giant document or spreadsheet with free text?
3. Were your company demographics and hierarchy included in the results for drill-down purposes?
4. Were multiple supplier benchmarks offered?
Travel management tradition has followed the path of suppliers (not buyers) owning the process of developing, implementing and reporting surveys of traveler and travel arrangers. However, delegating the survey process to the supplier cedes ownership, thereby relinquishing control of survey design and details, which then determines direction. Whoever owns the inputs of the survey directs the outputs. A change in this tradition will establish true accountability between buyers and suppliers.

Protect Your Constituents
Most buyers truly care about the supplier service levels experienced by their constituents. Therefore, you need to address areas often overlooked in the survey process: independence, bias, privacy, portability and comparability.
Independence: Most travel service surveys are completely created by the supplier, or with their creative control over a third party. The questions, scoring, rating and reporting of the survey results, as well as determining the individuals who will complete the survey, are all created by the very supplier that is being evaluated. Obviously, this process does not provide for an independent survey.
Bias: Research studies demonstrate how frequently bias in survey creation occurs. Consider the following, which can lead to biased results:
• Question design: "How excellent was your experience?" "Why do you like chocolate more than any other flavor?" These built-in assumptions can potentially lead participants to a particular answer.
• Question inclusion: "How likely is it that you would recommend this provider?" Is this included for buyer insight, or is it for marketing purposes?
• Participants: Are travel arrangers included? Most often, they are not. Why do you think that is?
• Rating scales: Does the scale allow for a truly neutral rating of stakeholder experience?
• Rating measurements: Does the measurement become compressed by adding scale categories together (i.e., "the top two boxes")? Are neutral ratings removed from the calculations?
• Timing of survey delivery: Are surveys delivered after each transaction or after a reflection period?
Privacy: Privacy issues have become a major concern to both businesses and individuals. The most notable are:
• Understanding that survey responses typically contain personally identifiable information
• Knowing if other individuals will have access to the survey data
• Knowing if Safe Harbor certification has been achieved by all companies connected to the survey
Portability and comparability: Many buyers have noted that each supplier has different questions, scales and measurement calculations. These disparate processes create two roadblocks to buyer travel management excellence:
• Lack of portability: If you change suppliers, your historical results will not be useful with the new supplier. The only window of time for baselines is before any change.
• Lack of comparability: Benchmarks aren't possible in an environment of differing survey questions, scales and measurements.

Demand More From Your Surveys
Innovative, sophisticated, forward-thinking buyers must demand much more from their survey processes. You must either:
• Work with your suppliers to develop surveys that are independently and scientifically created, designed for your specific needs, result in valuable, actionable information and deliver portable and comparable results, or
• Find an unbiased party to provide surveys and processes that meet the previously listed criteria.
Surveys may appear beneficial, but you may be in the dark because of supplier control. Change requires shining a light on your current survey process to visualize your needs versus those of your suppliers. It's the only way to gain insightful, independent, actionable information from the survey participants. Understanding these critical survey points provides the brightness of insight that is needed to affect change.

~ Will Tate, senior vice president, Management Alternatives