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Are You Asking the Right Customer Experience Questions?

5 minute read
Janelle Estes avatar
When gathering customer feedback, asking misguided or poorly formulated questions can have serious negative repercussions.

Today’s top companies rely heavily on human insight to guide their strategies and offerings. It’s these meaningful, actionable, high-quality customer perspectives that fuel unforgettable experiences and create brand loyalty. One of the most important parts of this process is making sure that you’re asking customers the right questions. 

When gathering customer feedback, asking misguided or poorly-formulated questions can have seriously negative repercussions. Take, for example, a customer feedback project conducted by a large multinational retailer in the 2000s. The shopping giant asked customers a seemingly straightforward question: “Would you like our stores to be less cluttered?” Customers responded “Yes” across the board. The company then embarked on a multi-year undertaking to declutter its stores. This entailed removing 15% of in-store merchandise. 

However, as a result, sales plummeted. The company lost nearly $2 billion, according to industry reports.

Let’s take a look at how companies can avoid pitfalls like this by ensuring that they’re asking the right questions. 

Steer Clear of Asking Biased Questions

Confirmation bias can be a snake in the grass when asking customers questions. If a company believes their new offering is “the next big thing” and conducts tests to confirm it, you'll get misleading results. It is likely that they will ask questions that unintentionally lead customers toward the answers that they’re seeking. 

Let’s revisit the retailer example. The question, “Would you like our stores to be less cluttered?” clearly guides the respondent toward the answer of “Yes.” How many people out there actually want a store to remain cluttered? Customers who might not have given the retailer’s layout a second thought may see that question and wonder, “Now that you mention it, the store does feel cluttered.”

Companies can avoid confirmation bias by abiding by these three tips:

  • Nix all “yes” or “no” questions, as these can inadvertently influence answers. You may ask, “Did you have a good experience at check out?” Instead, ask this: “Tell us about your experience at checkout: What worked well and what didn’t?” 
  • Be mindful of framing questions in a positive or negative manner. You may ask, “Do you wish our store was less cluttered?” Instead, ask this: “What would improve your experience of shopping in our store?” 
  • Don’t give away the answer in your question. Asking, “Have you spent at least $100 online in the past month?” points directly to the answer for which you’re looking. Something more open-ended like this opens the door to more accurate and useful customer insights: “How much have you spent online in the past month?”

Related Article: What You Should Know About Voice of the Customer Survey Questions

Ask Questions That Will Yield Valuable, Shareable Perspectives

When appropriate, customer insights should be shared throughout an organization. Many of the stories and perspectives you capture will only be relevant to you and your team. However, share any broader themes, or especially eye-opening tidbits.

With this in mind, companies can consider including a few questions that will yield shareable perspectives. These shouldn’t be the only questions you ask, but they can be one component of your overall approach.

Prompts like, “Use three words to describe how this experience makes you feel,” can offer fresh language that can be repurposed into marketing efforts. “Describe our product in your own words” can provide insight into how the user’s mind works. It can also pinpoint areas of misunderstanding that can then be cleared up proactively.  

Learning Opportunities

This type of customer feedback is useful to everyone within an organization. Disseminating it helps build shared meaning, cultivate understanding and create universal buy-in. This way, more people in more departments better understand the customers they serve. 

Get Clear on How Your Question Ties Back to the Business

Curiosity and bold, out-of-the box thinking are integral to innovation. But teams should be mindful not to get carried away when asking their customers questions. Every question a company asks should clearly map back to its business outcomes.

Imagine you’re creating an ecommerce experience, but you’ve noticed that customers are dropping off at the product detail page. Your inclination might be to ask “Why?” or “How can we get people to complete more purchases?” But these questions are vague and don’t tie back to high-level organizational goals. 

Dig deeper and instead ask questions like, “How do we generate more revenue?” or, “How do we grow faster?” You address broader company goals this way. The same thing goes for questions that are asked of customers — they need to ladder up to something bigger.

Related Article: The Most Important Customer Survey Question

Customer Questions Require Thoughtful, Holistic Approach

Time and energy spent on exploring questions is an investment. Invest in asking questions that will help your company get to market faster, discover new customers, cut costs and get a leg up on the competition.

Asking customers the right questions requires a thoughtful and holistic approach that involves checking your biases, sharing knowledge and looking at the bigger picture. By taking note of the concepts above, companies can get on the path to asking questions that generate value and empower them to better serve their customers.

About the author

Janelle Estes

Janelle Estes is chief insights officer at UserTesting, a human insights platform, and the co-author with CEO Andy MacMillan of User Tested: How the World’s Top Companies Use Human Insight to Create Great Experiences. She is also co-host of the Human Insight Podcast.