Last year, my wife and I traveled to Cambodia. We left our computers and smartphones at home. We pretty much unplugged. But in Siem Reap, a dusty town that serves as the jumping off point for exploring ancient temples like the one at Angkor Wat, we discovered that no matter how far you travel these days and no matter the language barrier, you just can't escape conversational marketing. After a glorious day at a local spa, my wife and I paid and were presented with a postcard with instructions for taking a quick online survey about the spa's service, which was fantastic. But the survey itself wasn't all that extraordinary. In fact, had we not been thousands of miles away from home in a country so very different from our own, we probably wouldn't have given the survey a second thought. After all, we get these kinds of invitations from brands on a daily basis. More often than not, the receipt for my meal doubles as a survey invitation. Whenever I speak with someone at my bank, I get an email asking me to rate the experience. And just about every online purchase seems to be followed by two emails: the first confirming my order and the second, you guessed it, asking me how things went.
These days, brands of all types and sizes aren't shy about asking questions. In fact, the mantra of conversational marketing has obviously kicked the question engine into high gear. But there's a big difference between being willing to ask your customers questions and having what it takes to ask the right questions, in the right ways, and to draw the right insights. Brands make a lot of mistakes when soliciting customer feedback, and it's often because they don't ask themselves the right questions in advance.
"Smart brands gather feedback from their customers in a systematic, scientific fashion," says James Barry, senior director for Hanover Research. "The smartest brands communicate with their customers in a variety of ways including, but certainly not limited to, qualitative interviews to generate new product/service ideas, ongoing tracking surveys to understand the brand's position within the market place as well as satisfaction amongst customers, and quantitative surveys to validate new product concepts. This ongoing dialogue with customers allows smart brands to develop sound plans and then validate decisions prior to the implementation of their strategy."
So what questions should your brand ask? As it turns out, the better question is: How should your brand go about asking questions of its customers? Here's what every brand should keep in mind.
Why are you asking these questions?
While we often take it as a given that brands should be asking questions, it's still a good idea for the marketing team to ask a more fundamental question before talking to consumers (otherwise, you risk gleaning unhelpful and unfocused feedback). And that question is: Why are we doing this?
"You ask questions directly of your customers so that you can understand their motivations and opinions of the activities you observe," says Terry Redding, VP of marketing and product development for CFI Group. "With the advent of big data (and arguably even before big data), there is a popular belief that looking at behavioral data is sufficient. For a company that has never done any true analysis, there is certainly much low-lying insight that can be gained from analyzing behaviors. But here's a fairly simple example of where this sole focus (behavioral) breaks down: You notice on your website that purchasers spend an average of 10 minutes browsing prior to purchase. For less than 10 minutes they don't purchase, for more than 10 minutes and the results are inconclusive. Without actually having a conversation with your customers (surveys for example) you really have no idea what is going on. Do people spend 10 minutes because your site is compelling and engaging? Or do people spend 10 minutes because your site is poorly laid out and it simply takes this long to actually find what they want and decipher the confusing information you have presented?"
Are you serious about asking questions?
There are brands that ask questions and then there are brands that pay lip service to the practice. What do I mean by lip service? I'm talking about the classic question: How would you rate our product/service? While there's nothing wrong with that question, there is something wrong if that's all you are asking. And you're really skewing your results if you expect your customers to answer that question in the store, or if you've trained your customer service reps to solicit the highest possible rating when the customer fills out the survey later. In both scenarios, you're essentially asking your customers to lie to you. You're pushing them away from open, frank answers toward responses that only make your brand look good.
But wait! You're thinking there's no way that your brand is skewing its questions because every consumer-facing team member has been told to solicit honest answers. Well, bravo. But if that's what you really think, I urge you to go to a big box store, your cell phone provider, or a local restaurant and really ask yourself if those surveys the employees are asking the customers to take come across as genuine opportunities for candid feedback, or if the way in which you're asked to participate is loaded with signals for you to tell the brand what it wants to hear.
"Many brands will simply maintain the status quo as opposed to increasing their research efforts," says Barry. "Brands often rationalize their lack of research with the justification that 'we've never done strategic research in the past and we've been successful without it.' Those brands that elect not to communicate with customers miss out on opportunities to identify areas where they can improve brand and product positioning and overall customer satisfaction."
Are you asking different types of questions?
A lot of brands are probably pretty comfortable asking questions that are easily quantifiable. Information, after all, is a powerful tool, and questions that can be distilled to data points can help guide a brand's decision-making process and help you gauge the ROI of your marketing efforts. But while it's important to be able to quantify the answers your customers are giving you, it's also important to engage on a more qualitative front.
"There is also a lot of value in asking open ended questions," says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, professor of marketing at Golden State University. "The analysis may not be so easy, [but] sometimes you don't know what you are looking for. Open ended questions let you discover possibilities you may not be aware of."
Are you interested in answers or insights?
Suppose you make peanut butter and you just asked 1,000 customers in an online survey if they like your product. Naturally, that information would be really important. But what if you asked those same customers the same question in real life? Or better yet, what if you could watch those potential customers at the grocery store to see which brand of peanut butter they're actually buying?
On one level, both sets of questions seem to be driving at the same thing. But when you add the in-person component, you get so much more information, says Strahilevitz.
"Watching people interact with your product, service, or website in person can get you a lot of insights you cannot get from an online survey," says Strahilevitz. "You can see facial expressions, sighs, etc. You can capture their thoughts as they consume the products or media you want to learn more about. If you talk to me about shopping on Amazon while I am doing it, you will learn a lot more than if you ask me the same questions on a survey. I am not saying surveys are not valuable, but for some things, watching people interact with what you want to learn about is more useful."
Are you using all the channels at your disposal?
If you don't ask this question of your brand in advance, you could be ignoring important segments. Asking your customers questions isn't just about engaging in a single channel, it's about being open to dialogue anywhere and everywhere, says Chris Shaffer, manager of search and social strategy at Defakto.
"We test constantly, and to do that we need as much feedback as we can get our hands on," says Shaffer. "So we like to utilize a combination of email surveys, social media monitoring, and even website surveys, to get the feedback we need. By doing this, we get feedback from customers at every stage of their journey and you can catch questions, comment, concerns, and praise that you wouldn't otherwise get."
Are you saying thank you?
Call it basic manners. If your customers have helped you better understand your business -- whether through unsolicited comments or direct questions -- it makes good sense to say thanks, according to Shaffer. For one thing, it's just polite to say thank you. But it's also a good way to turn a question or conversation into a marketing victory.
"It may sound simple, but the best way to turn a decent customer into a raving fan is simply to recognize them," says Shaffer. "One thing that works well is sending 'Thank You' cards or even small gifts. We suggest building a list of the people who talk about you most on social media and finding ways to reward them for boosting your brand by actually looking at what they say and finding opportunities to help. It doesn't have to have monetary value either, something as simple as a shout out on Twitter can go a long way to boosting customer loyalty."
Are you using content to get feedback?
In the last year or so, there's been plenty of talk about brands doing content marketing. For the most part, that talk has centered on brands using content to break through the clutter of our crowded media space. But effective content marketing is also about using your branded content to start a dialogue with the consumer, says Patrick Quigley, CEO of Vantage Media.
"By using content marketing to test different topic areas, brands can use social media, website data, and analytics to gather feedback on a service or product," says Quigley. "Social media shares, comments, and content engagement can be tell-tale signs of either positive or negative feedback."
Are you really going to use the answers?
People want to feel like they've made a difference. It's human nature. So if you're asking your customers questions, it pays to let them know that their responses are more than just data points for a research report that nobody will ever read.
"The biggest thing a brand can do is deliver on the make-use-of-it promise," says Redding. "Demonstrate to your customers that you act on their feedback to make their experience better, and customers will become more willing to share their opinions. They will feel like they are not just wasting their time, pouring their valuable data into a black hole that will just be used by the company to exploit their relationship."
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
"Businessman questions about life draw on the blackboard" image via Shutterstock.