Greater Insight: Quid pro quo

Roger Sant of Maritz Research
Roger Sant of Maritz Research

Encouraging consumers to provide feedback on their experiences requires greater flexibility in relation to the kinds of questions asked, using online sources and sharing the resulting data.

Our world is changing fast. With the advent of the digital age and all the information-sharing that goes with it, businesses are losing control of customer feedback.

People are becoming more and more frustrated at being asked to fill out long, boring and often (in their eyes) irrelevant questionnaires. Surveys are not passing the WIIFM (what's in it for me?) test; customers want to know how their data is being used and what they are going to get in return. More than anything, they want to tell us about the things they think are important, not the things we want them to talk about.

Consumers can communicate on their own terms via any number of chat rooms, review sites and social networks in a shared and open manner, so why should they take the time to fill out questionnaires? We need to get closer to a world where research becomes mutually advantageous.

Questionnaires need to be clearer, shorter and visually engaging, and we need to lose that endless list of attributes.

One suggestion is to use adaptive questioning techniques: most of us have filled out questionnaires that asked us to rate 10-15 attributes relating to an 'occurrence' (a touchpoint or moment of truth) about which we remember very little. If asked, someone might say: 'I entered, paid in a cheque and left. I don't remember whether she was friendly or helpful and I certainly don't remember whether the bank was clean and tidy.'

Sometimes people don't remember anything remotely good or bad about an experience, in fact sometimes people don't remember much about the experience at all.

In these cases we need to skip the detail. One approach is to ask the detailed attributes only if the respondent can remember something good or bad about an experience. This will inevitably lead to a lot of 'missing data', but I argue that when we do force people to rate things they have little opinion about, the data we collect is misleading anyway - it clouds the findings. Furthermore, it frustrates customers and puts them off completing other questionnaires in the future.

Another core idea is to share data publicly. The concept of publishing ratings and findings for everyone to see can be challenging, but it is something that is going to happen whether we like it or not.

Some car companies have already put dealership scores on their website, and some banks display satisfaction scores in branches. If we don't start sharing more information in a controlled manner, then it will simply get out in an uncontrolled way instead.

Web harvesting is a great way to find out what people are saying about your brand. It involves classifying the comments as positive or negative and creating your own online 'net recommend score'.

A range of text analysis programmes are now very effective at 'quantifying' unstructured text information by associating comments to brands, identifying them as positive or negative and classifying them by topic.

These techniques are invaluable, not only for web harvesting, but also for gleaning more useful information from open-ended questions, complaints data and any other form of free-text feedback.

This allows us to make more extensive and effective use of open comments in surveys. This, in turn, gives us more opportunity to let our customers talk about what they want to talk about.

However, we need to exercise care - we should not look at web-based comments in isolation, as online sentiment can be unrepresentative of a target market.

We need to move toward an environment in which customers want to give feedback in the expectation that they will get some kind of return on their investment of time and effort. The research process itself should contribute to a positive experience of a brand or company. To do this, we need to transform the way we enable customers to give feedback.

- Roger Sant is vice-president of Maritz Research. Contact him at


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