Ethical issues in commercial research

I’ve been doing the rounds of car yards lately. One sign at a car yard took me by surprise, and got me thinking about the ethical standards relevant for commercial research.

The car yard displayed a copy of the customer-satisfaction survey I would receive if I purchased a new car from them. And next to the displayed survey was a sign stating that the car yard didn’t want customers to complete the survey if they didn’t feel able to answer ‘strongly agree’ to every question. The sign urged customers to talk to staff if they had any concerns at all about their customer experience – so that the concern could be addressed and the customer could then respond with ‘strongly agree’ to every question.

At its simplest level, this sign is all about encouraging customers to talk about their concerns. It’s about addressing concerns early, so that they don’t become big problems. It’s a way of saying that customer satisfaction is important to the company. A way of attempting to appear open to all customer feedback.

But the underlying meaning – that everyone who completes the survey should be ready to respond ‘strongly agree’ to every question – disturbed me. It simply can’t be appropriate to direct customers to give certain responses.

Within a university environment, researchers put a lot of effort into considering the ethical issues that underpin their research. Concerns about whether participants may feel coerced by the researcher or the research questions are particularly important. There’s simply no way that the car company’s sign could get approved within a university setting.

But in a commercial setting, things are different. There’s no process questioning the ethics of the car yard’s sign.

I wonder whether other people notice, and whether they care. It certainly bothered me. And instead of feeling that the company was open to customers’ feedback, I was left with the feeling of a company that wanted to give the appearance of caring.

And what’s the result of the research? Is the car yard left congratulating itself because of the positive responses that it receives? How valid are the results of the survey?