Zappos disappointed me recently, but not with their shoes or their service.

I had ordered five pairs of sneakers from them with the hope I’d find one I liked that fit.

To my joy, three pairs fit. I liked all three but only needed one. I kept the one I liked most.

As I went to return the other four pairs, Zappos required a reason for each return and offered the following choices:

Did not fit
Unhappy with style
Received wrong merchandise
Received defective merchandise
Found better price elsewhere

For the two pairs that fit and that I liked, but not as much as my keeper, I struggled with my response. I chose “unhappy with style” because it was the least untrue.

But I was not unhappy with their style. I was just happier with another.

The Misguided Case of Researcher Knows Best

By not offering me an option that fit my true answer, Zappos was forcing me to misrepresent my truth which then skewed their research results.

This is a pet peeve of mine.

Companies assume they know what their customers will say, so they dictate all the survey answer possibilities without talking to any customers.

Or people run social media polls with just the answers they can fathom – or the ones they want to hear about.

Survey takers and poll voters are then forced into responses that misrepresent their true feelings. The research becomes more about the survey taker’s agenda than about getting true results.

At best, that research mispresents reality. At worst, it leads people to believe and rely on bogus results.

The Harm Crappy Research Does to Your Brand

You’ve heard me say before that a brand is the expectation of what you get from an entity based on all your prior experiences with and impressions of that entity.

The survey you ask your customer to take is a brand experience. It makes an impression on them.

A well-crafted survey communicates your brand understands them and cares about them.

A sloppy or poorly-executed survey can damage your brand several ways:

1. If you are asking for my opinion, but don’t have responses that apply to me, I may feel misunderstood or excluded, as I did with Zappos. I may also wonder why you are wasting my time with something that does not apply to me.

2. If you are wasting my time with this survey, I’m less likely to consider answering future ones.

3. If the choices you offer are limited to a particular area, you may alienate some of your audience. Limited choices suggest an agenda. Your survey is meant to use my response to support something you already favor.

Obvious agendas can be a major turnoff for survey participants, especially if their desired responses are absent. Agendas say you only matter if you agree with me. They alienate everyone else.

And they show your research isn’t objective.

My husband showed me a possible survey for his golf club proposed by a member. All the choices on a tee-time question involved 9-hole tee times, while the course offers both 9-hole and 18-hole play. I immediately knew the member wanted more 9-hole tee times. His question wording gave him away.

4. If your research isn’t objective and comprehensive, it could prompt you to make the wrong business decision.

With enough misrepresented answers, Zappos could ditch a profitable sneaker offering.

If your company relies on poor research to guide its new product development, you may invest in a flop.

Avoid This Crappy Research Trap

Online survey options have proliferated like Star Trek Tribbles (if you don’t know, see Just for Fun below). Easy access and low cost are a powerful lure for you to do your own research.

I get that.

But just as owning a Flowbee doesn’t make you a hair stylist, access to online survey tools doesn’t make you or your team expert researchers.

Training and education do.

If you are going to ask a survey question and require the taker to check a box to one of your answers, make sure your response choices are comprehensive and unbiased.

Do in-depth interviews before you write your survey. Talk to at least 20-25 people in the group you want to survey (customers, vendors, retailers, etc.). Ask them your questions without offering any choices. Record their responses verbatim.

Look for recurring patterns in the responses you receive. Recurring patterns signal you’ve got most of the likely responses your survey takers would choose.

You’ll also have better insight into your customers’ thoughts and may be able to word your question better.

Use the list of responses you collected as your answer choice starting list. Keep the wording as close as you can to the original responses.

But your answer choice list isn’t done yet.

Add an “other” option to your response choices. In case you get an outlier who wants to express their opinion. Your “other” option should include an opportunity to write in their response.

Add a “not applicable” option if your question doesn’t apply to everyone. Forcing people to answer a question that does not apply to them muddies your data.

Add a “don’t know” option. Because some people truly don’t know their response. Allowing them an out strengthens the confidence in the data you collect for the other choices.

If you need help, call me.

Remember, your brand reputation is at stake. You might also have marketing dollars and other investments riding on your research results. Invest the time and effort upfront to ensure you get the research right.

Follow these guidelines and who knows? Maybe you’ll get as good at research as George Clooney is cutting his hair with a Flowbee!

Have you conducted a poll lately?
Have you ever used a Flowbee?
Do you agree George Clooney uses it well?


Just for Fun

Don’t know what a Tribble is? Or how fast they multiply? See Spock do the math. (3 minutes, 14 seconds; I’m not a Trekkie, but I played one my senior year in college.)

The Flowbee was the butt of jokes for years. But the pandemic combined with an impromptu endorsement from George Clooney made the product sell out two years ago. Watch George Clooney demonstrate the Flowbee on The Jimmy Kimmel show. (13 minutes, 25 seconds; Flowbee part begins at 5:27 but the whole interview is fun.)

The Flowbee inspired the Suck Cut in the Wayne’s World movie. (1 minute, 12 seconds)


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