The net promoter score is a widely adopted metric for gauging customers’ satisfaction with a product. The popularity of the score is arguably attributed to the simplicity of measurement and the intuitiveness of interpretation. Moreover, it is claimed to be correlated with revenue growth, which, ignoring causality, makes it even more appealing. In this article, we leverage Bayesian statistics in order to infer the net promoter score for an arbitrary segmentation of a customer base. The outcome of the inference is a distribution over all possible values of the score weighted by probabilities, which provides exhaustive information for the subsequent decision-making.

A bare-bones net promoter survey is composed of only one question: “How likely are you to recommend us to a friend?” The answer is an integer ranging from 0 to 10 inclusively. If the grade is between 0 and 6 inclusively, the person in question is said to be a detractor. If it is 7 or 8, the person is said to be a neutral. Lastly, if it is 9 or 10, the person is deemed a promoter. The net promoter score itself is then the percentage of promoters minus the percentage of detractors. The minimum and maximum attainable values of the score are −100 and 100, respectively. In this case, the greater, the better.

As it is usually the case with surveys, a small but representative subset of customers is reached out to, and the collected responses are then used to draw conclusions about the target population of customers. Our objective is to facilitate this last step by estimating the net promoter score given a set of responses and necessarily quantify and put front and center the uncertainty in our estimates.

Before we proceed, since a net promoter survey is an observational study, which is prone to such biases as participation and response biases, great care must be taken when analyzing the results. In this article, however, we focus on the inference of the net promoter score under the assumption that the given sample of responses is representative of the target population.

Problem

In practice, one is interested to know the net promoter scope for different subpopulations of customers, such as countries of operation and age groups, which is the scenario that we shall target. To this end, suppose that there are segments of interest, and each customer belongs to strictly one of them. The results of a net promoter survey can then be summarized using the following matrix:

where , , and denote the number of detractors, neutrals, and promoters in segment , respectively. For segment , the observed net promoter score can be computed as follows:

However, this observed score is a single scalar value calculated using data points, which is only a subset of the corresponding subpopulation. It may or may not correspond well to the actual net promoter score of that subpopulation. We have no reason to trust it, since the above estimate alone does not tell us anything about the uncertainty associated with it. Uncertainty quantification is essential for sound decision-making, which is what we are after.

Ideally, for each segment, given the observed data, we would like to have a distribution of all possible values of the score with probabilities attached. Such a probability distribution would be exhaustive information, from which any other statistic could be easily derived. Here we tackle the problem by means of Bayesian inference, which we discuss next.

Solution

In order to perform Bayesian inference of the net promoter score, we need to decide on an adequate Bayesian model for the problem at hand. Recall first that we are interested in inferring scores for several segments. Even though there might be segment-specific variations in the product, such as special offers in certain countries, or in customers’ perception of the product, such as age-related preferences, it is conceptually the same product that the customers were asked to evaluate. It is then sensible to expect the scores in different segments to have something in common. With this in mind, we construct a hierarchical model with parameters shared by the segments.

First, let

be a triplet of parameters corresponding to the proportion of detractors, neutrals, and promoters in segment , respectively, with the constraint that they have to sum up to one. The constraint makes the triplet a simplex, which is what is emphasized by the angle brackets on the right-hand side. These are the main parameters we are interested in inferring. If the true value of was known, the net promoter score would be computed as follows:

Parameter can also be thought of as a vector of probabilities of observing one of the three types of customers in segment , that is, detractors, neutrals, and promoters. Then the natural model for the observed data is a multinomial distribution with trials and probabilities :

where refers to the th row of matrix introduced earlier. The family of multinomial distributions is a generalization of the family of binomial distributions to more than two outcomes.

The above gives a data distribution. In order to complete the modeling part, we need to decide on a prior probability distribution for . Each is a simplex of probabilities. In such a case, a reasonable choice is a Dirichlet distribution:

where is a vector of strictly positive parameters. This family of distributions is a generalization of the family of beta distributions to more than two categories. Note that is the same for all segments, which is what enables information sharing. In particular, it means that the less reliable estimates for segments with fewer observations will be shrunk toward the more reliable estimates for segments with more observations. In other words, with this architecture, segments with fewer observations are able to draw strength from those with more observations.

How about ? This triplet is a characteristic of the product irrespective of the segment. Its individual components can be utilized in order to encode one’s prior knowledge about the net promoter score. Specifically, , , and could be set to imaginary observations of detractors, neutrals, and promoters, respectively, reflecting one’s beliefs prior to conducting the survey. The higher these imaginary counts are, the more certain one claims to be about the true score. One could certainly set these hyperparameters to fixed values; however, a more comprehensive solution is to infer them from the data as well, giving the model more flexibility by making it hierarchical. In addition, an inspection of afterward can provide insights into the overall satisfaction with the product.

We now need to specify a prior, or rather a hyperprior, for . We proceed under the assumption that we have little knowledge about the true score. Even if there were surveys in the past, it is still a valid choice, especially when the product evolves rapidly, rendering prior surveys marginally relevant.

Now, it is more convenient to think in terms of expected values and variances instead of imaginary counts, which is what represents. Let us find an alternative parameterization of the Dirichlet distribution. The expected value of this distribution is as follows:

It can be seen that it is a simplex of proportions of detractors, neutrals, and promoters of the whole population, which is similar to describing segment . Regarding the variance,

is considered to capture it sufficiently well. Solving the system of the last two equations for yields the following result:

The prior for can then be rewritten as follows:

This new parameterization requires two hyperpriors: one is for , and one is for . For , a reasonable choice is a uniform distribution (over a simplex), and for , a half-Cauchy distribution:

The two distributions are relatively week, which is intended in order to let the data speak for themselves. At this point, all parameters have been defined. Of course, one could go further if the problem at hand had a deeper structure; however, in this case, it is arguably not justifiable.

The final model is as follows:

The posterior distribution factorizes as follows:

which relies on the usual assumption of independence given the parameters. One could make a few simplifications by, for instance, leveraging the conjugacy of the Dirichlet distribution with respect to the multinomial distribution; however, it is not needed in practice, as we shall see shortly.

The above posterior distribution is our ultimate goal. It is the one that gives us a complete picture of what the true net promoter score in each segment might be given the available evidence, that is, the responses from the survey. All that is left is to draw a large enough sample from this distribution and start to summarize and visualize the results.

Unfortunately, as one might probably suspect, drawing samples from the posterior is not an easy task. It does not correspond to any standard distribution and hence does not have a readily available random number generator. Fortunately, the topic is sufficiently mature, and there have been developed techniques for sampling complex distributions, such as the family of Markov chain Monte Carlo methods. Unfortunately, the most effective and efficient of these techniques are notoriously complex themselves, and it might be extremely difficult and tedious to implement and apply them correctly in practice. Fortunately, the need for versatile tools for modeling and inference with the focus on the problem at hand and not on implementation details has been recognized and addressed. Nontrivial scenarios can be tackled with a surprisingly small amount of effort nowadays, which we illustrate next.

Implementation

In this section, we implement the model using the probabilistic programming language Stan. Stan is straightforward to integrate into one’s workflow, as it has interfaces for many general-purpose programming languages, including Python and R. Here we only highlight the main points of the implementation and leave it to the curious reader to discover Stan on their own.

The following listing is a complete implementation of the model:

// The data
data {
  int<lower = 0> m; // The number of segments
  int<lower = 0> n; // The number of categories, which is always three
  int y[m, n]; // The observed counts of detractors, neutrals, and promoters
}

// The parameters of the model
parameters {
  simplex[n] mu;
  real<lower = 0> sigma;
  simplex[n] theta[m];
}

// The parameters that are derived using the above ones
transformed parameters {
  vector<lower = 0>[n] phi;
  phi = mu / sigma^2;
}

// The model
model {
  mu ~ uniform(0, 1);
  sigma ~ cauchy(0, 1);
  for (i in 1:m) {
    theta[i] ~ dirichlet(phi);
    y[i] ~ multinomial(theta[i]);
  }
}

It can be seen that the code is very laconic and follows closely the development given in the previous section, including the notation. It is worth noting that, in the model block, we seemingly use unconstrained uniform and Cauchy distributions; however, the constraints are enforced by the definitions of the corresponding hyperparameters, mu and sigma.

This is practically all that is needed; the rest will be taken care of by Stan, which is actually a lot of work, including an adequate initialization, an efficient execution, and necessary diagnostics and quality checks. Under the hood, the sampling of the posterior in Stan is based on the Hamiltonian Monte Carlo algorithm and the no-U-turn sampler, which are considered to be the state-of-the-art.

The output of the sampling procedure is a set of draws from the posterior distribution, which, again, is exhaustive information about the net promoter score in the segments of interest. In particular, one can quantify the uncertainty in and the probability of any statement one makes about the score. For instance, if a concise summary is needed, one could compute the mean of the score and accompany it with a high-posterior-density credible interval, capturing the true value with the desired probability. However, if applicable, the full distribution should be integrated into the decision-making process.

Conclusion

In this article, we have constructed a hierarchical Bayesian model for inferring the net promoter score for an arbitrary segmentation of a customer base. The model features shared parameters, which enable information exchange between the segments. This allows for a more robust estimation of the score, especially in the case of segments with few observations. The final output of the inference is a probability distribution over all possible values of the score in each segment, which lays a solid foundation for the subsequent decision-making. We have also seen how seamlessly the model can be implemented in practice using modern tools for statistical inference, such as Stan.

Lastly, note that the presented model is only one alternative; there are many other. How would you model the net promoter score? What changes would you make? Make sure to leave a comment.

References