Listening to Your Customers: Asking Good Questions

There are several reasons and methods for gathering information about customers. Regardless of the method you choose, receiving good data relies on the quality of the questions you ask.
Listening to Your Customers: Asking Good Questions - Articles
Listening to Your Customers: Asking Good Questions

Tips for Asking Good Questions

There are two main principles to asking good questions:

  • avoid confusion and
  • keep the customers' perspective in mind.

Good questions make the customer feel like they can give an answer and that the information will be used. Questions that are confusing lead to a frustrated customer and feedback that may not be accurate. Below are a few tips to follow:

  • Ask questions that are simple and straightforward.
    Keep questions short and to the point.
  • Ask about only one thought per question.
    If you ask about two issues in the same question, you don't know which one the customer is reacting to. For example: "How do you feel about our delivery and payment options?" These business features should be asked about separately.
  • Use standard English (or other language as appropriate).
    Avoid jargon, slang, or abbreviations. Be sure that all words used in the question will be clearly understood by your customers. For example, you wouldn't want to include abbreviations such as PDA, which often means Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, but could be confused with others (such as personal digital assistant, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, or Progressive Democrats of America).
  • Offer a balanced viewpoint.
    If you ask about positive aspects of your business, you should also ask about negative. For example, you might ask about both favorite and least favorite products. If you are considering a change in your business, you want to know about services you offer that should definitely be kept, along with services that should change.
  • Use neutral language.
    Avoid words that are biased or that lead the customers to a particular answer. For example, the question 'Please describe your reasons for buying fresh, nutritious food from local farmers' will make them more likely to select answers that are related to freshness, nutritional qualities, and support for local farmers (which may or may not reflect their actual reasons).
  • Ask questions that the customers are able to answer in a way that is in line with the way they think.
    For example, "How much did you spend on direct market agriculture products last year?" would be very difficult for customers to estimate. Instead, be specific about the location of their purchases and give them a time frame that is easy to remember. You might instead ask "In a typical visit, how much do you spend in total at the farmers' market?"

For closed-ended questions:

  • Use answer categories that cover all possibilities but do not overlap. For example, a question asking about age of family members might offer answer categories such as:
  • under 10
  • 10-20
  • 20-30
  • and so on

These categories overlap. Instead use:

  • under 10
  • 10-19
  • 20-29
  • 30-39
  • and so on
  • Use answer categories that are balanced. For example, if you ask about satisfaction with some part of your business, use answer categories that cover the full range, such as very dissatisfied, dissatisfied, satisfied, or very satisfied.
  • Provide answer categories such as 'does not apply' that allow the respondent to 'find a home' in each question.

For open-ended questions:

  • Ask questions that invite the customer to talk about their experiences or thoughts. For example, 'Please describe what attracted you to my booth' offers the opportunity for the customer to list all their reasons and any possible connection between them. These kinds of connections can include a combination of personal reasons (convenience) and booth features (specific products desired).
  • Avoid asking pointed questions (such as 'why did you…'). They can make customers feel like they're being put on the spot. Instead, use phrases such as 'Please describe….' or 'What are some reasons….'.
  • Avoid asking questions that can be answered with a 'yes' or 'no.' This will discourage further discussion about details and reasons.

Tips for Designing a Written Survey

A written survey has to be inviting, clearly written, and well-designed, so that your customers will be interested in filling it out. This means making the format of the survey clean, neat, and 'spacious' - don't try to cram as many questions on a page as will fit. Customers may feel overwhelmed and not bother to complete the survey. Similarly, if instructions are not clear, or the questions hit them too hard too early, they may give up and not complete the survey. Below are a few tips to encourage customers to respond to all questions.

  • Keep the number of questions to a minimum - only those questions related to what you need to know to make your decisions.
  • The order of questions should move from simple, general, and nonthreatening questions to more complex or sensitive questions. In a way, you are developing rapport with the customer as they move through the survey (as you would in a face-to-face interview). Early questions should help get their heads into the topic by asking general questions. For example, you might start with a question such as 'From the list below, please circle the food businesses that you visited in the past year.' By the end of the survey, customers are 'invested' and are more willing to answer complex or sensitive questions. Always ask demographic questions (such as age, gender, occupation, income, etc.) at the very end.
  • Give clear directions about how customers are supposed to answer the question (should they check the box, circle the answer, or write a number?).
  • Format the survey attractively and in a way that allows the customer to move through it quickly and easily. Make sure that each question is numbered and is easily 'findable' on the page. Provide clear directions about where to go next ('please continue on back of sheet,' 'please continue on next page').
  • List answer categories down the page rather than across. (It's easier to see the options.) For example, instead of:
    [ ] yes [ ] no [ ] does not apply

    use:

    [ ] yes
    [ ] no
    [ ] does not apply
  • Provide a place for 'final comments' at the end of the survey. Be sure to thank them at the end of the survey, and give directions for returning the survey to you.

Conclusion

To a large extent, the quality of feedback you will receive depends on the quality of questions you ask. Use the tips in this fact sheet to craft the questions you ask to current, potential, or previous customers. You'll be able to make better decisions as a result.

July 2007

Authors

Energy and Society, specifically Community Impacts of Marcellus Shale Development Community Development and Public Engagement Water Quality Environmental Governance Systems Women in Agriculture

More by Kathryn Brasier, Ph.D.