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by Dr. Dennis Rosen

As a former university professor, I figured out a while ago that a common classroom question my colleagues and I had been asking for years is pretty much worthless. Go ahead - guess what the question is.

Sorry, your time is up. The most worthless question we ask in the classroom is, "Are there any questions?" It's worthless because it almost never gets a response, maybe because the students are embarrassed to ask (or think asking will lengthen the class). Even worse, when I would get no response, I assumed that meant there actually were no questions - that everything I had said had been understood. Later when I got exam results, it was clear this assumption was incorrect. I had been given the wrong impression.

Similarly, for your business, there are common questions you probably ask when interacting with your customers that can result in bad information. Perhaps you ask, "Do you have any questions?" or, "How was everything?" or, "How was our service (layout, Internet site, etc.)?" Even though these questions will generate responses, the responses may not be honest and can leave you with a wrong impression that can hurt your business.

What's Going On Here?

Why don't customers respond truthfully to these questions? There are three reasons:

1) The questions are too common. Your customers hear these questions so often during the day or week that they assume those who ask them don't really want an honest response. It's like when you pass acquaintances in the hallway at work, and they ask, "How are you?" You know they really don't want to hear about your cold or the fact you had a bad night's sleep. They are just being polite. So you provide what I call an automatic response of, "Fine," even if you are not. Similarly, your customers have a whole set of automatic responses that are triggered by common questions:

"How was our service?" - Fine
"How was your visit (room, meal)?" - Fine
"Did you find everything you needed?" - Yes
"Do you need any help?" - No, just looking around.

2) The questions are too broadly stated. Broadly stated questions don't stimulate thinking. Again, this leads to automatic responses. For example, when paying my bill at a restaurant counter, I'm almost always asked, "How was everything?" Really? This person wants to know how everything was? I mean, I've got the time, but someone better tell the people in the line behind me to go sit down, because this could take a while. (Please excuse my cynicism.)

Broadly stated questions give the impression that you are not looking for a meaningful response. So, again, your customers will give you an automatic response like, "Fine," even if something is bothering them. It's just easier to give the automatic response and move on than to give much thought to a question that is so broadly stated.

3) Customers don't expect anything of value to result from an honest appraisal. Given such an expectation, why should the customer waste his/her time giving an honest response?

Once as I was checking out at a local restaurant, the young lady behind the counter asked me the familiar, "How was everything?" The meal had been a total disaster. So I said, "Well since you asked, the burger was way overdone, the fries were cold, and the service was so slow, I didn't even have time to finish my meal." She looked up at me and started to cry (I'm not kidding) and asked, "What do you want me to do about it?" Clearly, she had been trained to ask the question but had not been trained on how to handle a resulting complaint. Since I hate to see people cry, I now routinely answer, "Fine," to this question and just don't go back if I didn't like my experience.

Note, again, that not only are such questions likely to be ineffective for gathering useful information (except, perhaps, when the customer has had an extremely bad experience), they can actually leave you with the incorrect impression that there are no problems, and this can be disastrous for your business.

Make It Worthwhile

So, what should you do - stop asking questions? No. You need to ask different questions:

1) Rephrase your questions to be different from the norm. For example, instead of asking, "Do you have any questions?" ask, "Is there anything I can further clarify?" Instead of asking, "How was everything?" at the end of a customer interaction (such as at a restaurant), ask, "Is there anything we could have done today to make your visit better?" Questions that are phrased to be different from the norm get the customer's attention and, thus, are less likely to trigger automatic responses.

2) Make the questions specific. Questions that are specific help communicate that you are truly interested in hearing a response, even if it is not positive and, therefore, are likely to generate more thoughtful and honest feedback. For example, instead of asking, "How was our service?" ask, "What three things could we have done better in our service today?" Or ask about a specific aspect of the service interaction.

3) Train your team to respond correctly. If you want an honest response, your team needs to respond appropriately when the feedback is less than positive. Customers want to know that their information will truly have an effect.

Change your questioning style, and you can feel more secure that the responses you are getting from your customers are of real value to your business. there anything I can further clarify?

© 2014, Dr. Dennis Rosen. All rights reserved. Reprints welcomed so long as article and by-line are kept intact and all links made live.

About Dr. Dennis Rosen

Dr. Dennis Rosen is The WinFluence(R) Expert on customer service and sales improvement. He helps retailers, service providers and professionals provide a Transformational Customer Experience(TM) to create customer devotion that leads to customer promotion. And Dennis shows sales forces how to lower customer barriers to information and change attitude to increase sales effectiveness. He is the author of the book, Create Devoted Customers and the instructional audio, The Mental-Rental(TM) Sales Process. Dennis delivers value-filled presentations with an entertaining style that participants rave about. Keynotes, training and educational materials available - 800-804-4034 or visit

Contact: Dennis Rosen / 800-804-4034

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