At UBS, We All Scream for Ice Cream

Surveys are an important research tool for all kinds of academic and business organizations.  After all, if you want to know how millionaires spend their time, or which web site is most attractive consumers, or which soda brand is best… well, you have to ask.  Actually, you have to do more than ask, you also have to be answered.

At the UBS building in Chicago this week at One North Wacker, the building manager released a survey to all building occupants (which includes many non-UBS companies, such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers PWC, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and Hewitt Associates).  The gist of the survey was asking workers how they felt about the building, questions on temperature, lighting, noise, cleanliness, etc.  Standard stuff.

The interesting part wasn’t the survey, but how UBS building management gathered results.  They offered an ice cream bar at a specific time in the lobby of the building on a Thursday afternoon.  A colleague stopped by my office to let me know he was headed down, and I thanked him for reminding me and I joined him to return the survey.

We were both completely shocked when the elevators doors opened up in the lobby.  The place was a mob scene: long lines and lots of noise as workers gathered festively to hand in the surveys and pick up their high fat reward.  I thought there was something comical and rather enjoyable about a building full of generally-well-paid professionals at UBS and other companies withstanding long lines and minor chaos all for a free ice cream.

The takeaway for me was the critical importance of developing the right incentive.  Absent that ice cream, the survey compliance rate would have certainly been near zero; but with that one simple, relatively inexpensive incentive, UBS professionals and their peers were climbing all over each other to respond to building management.

It is certainly a lesson I will consider when I need my own responses from people or groups generally disinclined to be helpful.  Always think about what motivates people.

— Tim Shields, UBS