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Is Your Product/Service Good? Don’t Ask, At Least Not Directly

What do you say when, after suffering through a very mediocre meal, the restaurant owner or manager comes over to your table, puts his hand on your shoulder, and says, “Was everything OK?” Do you ever say, “Glad you asked. Actually, everything sucked”? Or do you assure the nice man that everything was fine. And if you go back to the restaurant another time, to give it “one more chance,” and it’s still bad, what do you do? Probably nothing. There’’s no point in complaining.

It’’s easier to say nothing and not come back. My goal today is not to convince you to be truthful with restaurant owners — although that wouldn’’t be a bad thing — but to suggest something you might not want to hear. Chances are, your product/service is not as good as you think it is. And that may be true even if you have gone to the trouble of asking your customers, “Is everything OK?” Generally speaking, you won’’t find out how good your business is doing by asking the question directly.

A direct question, especially one that asks for criticism, is a little intimidating. Who wants to deliver bad news? And why? Your customers don’’t feel it is their responsibility to correct you. What they want is to have the best product/service at the best price. If you can provide that, they’’ll stick with you. If you can’’t, they will quietly but surely go elsewhere. They won’’t tell you what’’s wrong, but they will tell others. They will talk to their friends and colleagues. They will talk to your competitors. They will speak frankly to other salespeople and regulators. But they won’’t tell you.

As a business owner, you are like the cuckolded spouse. Secretly ridiculed. Alone in your ignorance. And eventually deserted. If you want to improve your business, you should assume that things are bad. Not completely bad all the time, but broken here and there — especially in places you can’’t cast an easy glance on. If you believe that things are not so good, however good they are said to be, you will always be in the mode of making things better.

And in a world of entropy, where things naturally fall apart, making constant improvements is the least you should do even to maintain the status quo. Don’’t walk around like Captain Bligh making false charges and flailing already dead seamen, but do find out how and where you are missing the mark through third-party inquiries.

In “Selling the Invisible,” Harry Beckwith says: “Make it so your clients CAN talk behind your back and that you can learn what they’re saying. Have them send their completed surveys to a third party. Have the third party assure your clients that they can leave their names out and that their names won’t be revealed. Your clients will give far more candid answers.”

Your customers will appreciate being surveyed, especially if the process is painless and they have reason to believe that their feedback will result in improvements. Question them just after they’’ve begun to use your product/service, when their reactions are fresh. Be careful about the way you pose your questions. It’’s generally better to let a third party do this — otherwise, your own prejudices will work their way into the questionnaire and your customers will feel like they are being led to the “correct” answers.

Written surveys are better than nothing, but oral surveys are best because they demonstrate a high level of concern on your part and also capture intonations that can’t be recorded in print. Furthermore, oral interviews allow for comments and criticisms that might not have been anticipated by the survey planners. One thing you shouldn’’t do is try to find out what your customers think by using a focus group. A focus group is quick and easy, but it’’s flawed.

In a focus group, you have exactly the wrong environment for frankness: a group setting where some individuals quickly establish themselves as dominant, others as compliant, and others as passive listeners. The relationship you have with your customer is one-on-one. That’’s how your survey should be too. Start today by planning a survey aimed specifically at evaluating customer satisfaction for your product/service. Set a date. Make some suggestions. Find someone competent to do it for you.