When Smart Companies Ask Dumb Questions

Sure, you want to know what your customers think of you. But the way you ask can make them think worse

Written by Chandra Clarke

So, I went to the grocery store last week, and after buying enough provisions to feed my small army, I was handed my receipt and an extra slip of paper. The cashier told me that if I filled out the survey at the web address on the paper, I could win $1,000 worth of groceries.

Like you, I get these survey requests all the time, and I typically ignore them. Who has the time, right? But a few issues in the store had frustrated me that day and I like a chance to win a prize as much as the next person. So, I duly logged on that night.

Twenty minutes later, I was even more frustrated with the store.

Had I found the store to be clean? Well gosh, it’s a place designed to sell food, so I certainly hope so! Was it brightly lit? Er, yes, but so what?

On and on it went in that manner. I bet when the results were tabulated, the marketing reps gave each other high fives for having “engaged” their customers and were commended for doing a great job.

Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.

First, the questions they asked were, to put it bluntly, useless. As a consumer, I expect that a major chain store is going to be both clean and well lit. That is the minimum requirement for a store. And really, that sort of thing should be left to regional managers to spot check. (Also, this had the effect of introducing doubt in my mind, as in: wait, you mean cleanliness might be a problem here?)

Second, the survey didn’t ask any questions about things that might actually matter to a consumer. For example, was everything that I was looking for in stock? (Well, no; in fact, for the fifth week in a row they had been out of stock of a product that I needed.) Did anyone help me pack my groceries at the checkout? (No, it was a busy Saturday and, with only three cashiers on, I had to pack my own groceries—no easy task with kids in tow.) Did I find it easy to navigate the store? (Actually, there was some dude working the floor polisher in the produce section, which meant I had to double back later for my veggies. Seriously, I’ve heard of clean-up in aisle five, but isn’t floor polishing better done after hours?)

These are all #firstworldproblems to be sure, but there is a business lesson to be learned here. While the store might have believed it was asking its customers how it was doing, it certainly wasn’t really listening.

That’s because in addition to asking pre-set questions on things that weren’t really concerns, the survey didn’t allow any free-form answers. Nowhere was I able to provide feedback, bad or good, on any other consideration.

Now, I’ve run a few surveys myself, and I know that free-form answer fields are generally a pain to review. Impatient respondents might type in gobbledygook just to get past that page, or they might not understand the question and provide unhelpful answers. It’s also hard to know how valid some answers are: Does that customer complaining about unfriendly staff have a valid point about that location, or is this the type of person who wouldn’t be happy even with the white glove treatment?

Nevertheless, given a large enough sample, you will definitely recognize some trends in these answers that will indicate where action is needed. Some one-off responses may even uncover some gems that will help you improve your organization. For instance, if I received a survey stating that a product had been missing for at least five weeks, I’d be concerned that there were some supply chain issues brewing, and I’d want to know if it was vendor specific, store specific, or worse, chain wide.

In the information age, the right business intelligence can make or break your organization. Your existing customers can be a goldmine of actionable advice€¦as long as you ask the right questions.

Chandra Clarke is the president of Scribendi.com, an award-winning, ISO-certified company that provides document-revision services to corporations and SMEs around the world. She blogs about the issues particular to female entrepreneurs at NeverPink.com.

More columns by Chandra Clarke

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com