The Scourge of Closed Option Questionnaires

Most organizations are disinclined to invest in the labor to directly address a consumer question or complaint. Their pattern of not wanting to authentically listen mirrors our modern malady of wanting to be heard more than we want hear.

Organizations now operate with the perceived need to survey customers about the quality of the service they received. The impulse is fine.  They want satisfied consumers.  And they would welcome high ratings that can be part of their advertising and marketing campaigns.  Then, too, many consumers now understand a thing or two about the logic of consumer behavior. They know that a failing business may only see a customer once, especially if competitors are just a click away.

Savvy customers and attentive businesses are all good.  But the instruments for measuring customer satisfaction are often facile. The best tool for learning about a customer’s experience is a live representative ready to trouble-shoot a problem.  But person to person contact is increasingly rare.  Most organizations are not inclined to invest in the staff that would require. Their pattern of not wanting to authentically listen mirrors our modern malady of wanting to frame a conversation before the other can respond. I have noticed that even at auto service departments, agents are often too busy keying in routine data about my car, such as mileage, to ask what kind of service it may need. Most don’t even ask why I made the appointment.

But the worst offender in the measurement of customer satisfaction is the online, phone or mail questionnaire.  Most are written to be tallied and converted into a number for each item. You know the drill:

“How would you rank your service experience?”

Very Good      Good        Fair          Poor

Would you recommend this product to others?       Yes         No

For obvious reasons these are called a “closed” option questions. Your attitude is to be gleaned from the adjective that you identify frequently from an outline questionnaire.

I recently completed a multi-page questionnaire for a newly purchased car.  And, incredibly, even with all the questions, the carmaker failed to set up a form that would let me clearly state my reason’s for the purchase.  (If you are interested, key controls were not on a fussy touch screen.)

Closed option questions appear to be good for the organization because they can be tabulated, hence, quantified, hence assumed “objective.” The bean counters among us love them. Even as a college teacher, I was required to give out these uniform questionnaires. But much of the feedback is coated in a thick fog of ambiguity.  For a student, useful feedback to a professor is not judging class lectures to be only “fair,” but their reasons for circling this term.

If any organization asks a really good question about their service (i.e., “What was most disappointing about your experience?”), the organization might learn something, but this kind of open-option question cannot be numerically tallied.  And A.I. technology is not that smart.  A person within the company would have to read the statement and engage in some active problem solving (especially if the same problem is mentioned by others). That’s an interpretive act: the kind of creative analysis we are squeezing out of routine consumer practices. To be sure, a car manufacturer will get a great deal of attention from a company representative who wants to sell them a zillion tires. The consumer looking for just a good set of four?  Not so much.