In search of the perfect question

questionsSee that customer? The one who is simultaneously retreating out the door and avoiding all eye contact? What is the one question you'd really like to ask them?

What question would deliver maximum illumination, for minimum breath wastage - and help you fix any problem?

A smarty-pants might declare "why, it's Why? of course!" And there are those who'd make a strong case for "How?"

Yet while "why?" may indeed be the best question in the universe, as a conversation opener it's frankly a little scary.

Believe me, just hollering "Why?" at that retreating customer is going to make them run even faster. (And "How dare you?" won't help much either).

It seems the perfect question clearly needs a little refinement before taking its place at the core of a business.

Perfect question(s) in action

Advocates of the Net Promoter Score would argue that the perfect business question is: "Would you recommend us to a friend or colleague?"

With this information obtained, the Net Promoter Score is then calculated as follows:

% of Promoters - % of Detractors = Net Promoter Score

While this is a very useful KPI, I think the challenge with the Net Promoter Score is knowing what to do next.

In my view the perfect question would help reveal a bit more of that "so what?" factor. In reality, that suggests a set of questions, rather than just the one.

Jim Sterne of Target Marketing and president of the Web Analytics Association talks about the perfect website survey, which asks just three questions:

1. Why did you visit this website today?
2. Did you achieve what you came for?
3. If not, why not?

This wonderfully simple survey establishes three important pieces of information. Specifically:

Customer Intent + Experience Outcome + Context

From this trifecta of data, a business has enough basic information to understand not only if there is a problem, but also the nature of the problem and whether action is necessary or appropriate. Without any one of the three pieces of data, the wrong conclusion could easily be drawn. (After all, an unsuccessful outcome doesn't necessarily mean a problem).

The three questions identified in Jim's survey are also surprisingly adaptable. It doesn't take much to tweak them to suit a physical business or tourism destination, for example, by asking:

1. Why did you visit XX on this occasion?
2. Did the visit meet your expectations?
3. If not, why not?

Of course, the key questions for you business may not be the same as those proposed by Jim. But I think these examples do give a view of how asking the right question can deliver data that can power business decisions.

But, while there may not be single perfect question, more like a little medley - don't be tempted to overdo it. Two or three perfect questions that deliver maximum illumination, for minimum breath wastage beat a customer interrogation anytime.

If you're going to ask great questions, don't try and answer them too

A final tip - there is no point in asking great questions if you're not going to listen to the answers. The answer to the perfect question is always a mystery until its uttered.

That means not forcing people to choose from a small selection of what you think their answer will be.

For example:

"here was a scorpion in the bathroom"
"My towels smelled of pizza"
"My ex was at the adjoining table"

Those are rarely options offered on tick box surveys!

For answers to the most critical questions to your business, ditch the tick boxes and let people actually tell you in their own words.

This adds to the time you'll spend analysing the data - but it will give you answers you can actually use to make decisions.