Just answer the question!

When my son was between the ages of 4 and 6, he managed to turn every single conversation into something about dinosaurs or guns.  He described his older sister’s princess dressup chest as “a T-rex head with no body and no eyes.  Just a big mouth – with no teeth”.  When we watched “The Sound of Music” together, he thought that the “Reverend Mother” was the “Weapon Mother”.

Kids.  Don’t they just say the darndest things?



Adults do too of course.  With some of my relatives, every conversation seems to turn into a religious discussion.  With my anarchist cousins, it seems that every conversation goes back to the inequality between rich and poor.  And don’t get the conspiracy guy started.

This can be somewhat tiresome in a social setting but it does tell you something important about the person you are talking to.  When a conversation about the price of milk suddenly turns into a discussion about who really shot JFK, you can be sure that they spend a lot of their time thinking about JFK.  This is a topic they are very passionate about.

When you talk to customers, you may find that the conversation you start out having doesn’t bear much resemblance to the conversation they want to have.  While it may not be what you want to hear, this can be valuable information to you because it tells you what they are truly passionate about.

This comes out even in supposedly constrained feedback tools such as surveys, especially in any open-ended questions.

If your survey asks:

Tell us about your favorite product feature and why.

You may get a few answers that look like this:

Ever since the new CEO took over, the partners have been treated very poorly.  We used to feel included in decisions and we are now kept in the dark.

Woah!  Where did that come from?  We were asking about features, not about the CEO!

Many times, when organizations analyze their open ended responses, they will discard this response because “it does not answer the question”.

But that is missing the bigger point.

That person just told you what was most on his mind about your company.

Presumably he is not an idiot and knows how to read and is fully aware that he didn’t answer the question.  However, he felt it was SO IMPORTANT to convey this to you that he took the only opportunity that was open to him.

If you get a lot of comments with a similar theme about the treatment of partners that were in questions NOT about that particular issue, you should pay attention – this is clearly a hot button issue.

When you design a survey, you generally have a set of topics that you are interested in learning the answers to.  But sometimes that’s not what customers want to talk to you about.

You can do the easy thing and discard that feedback, or you can pay extra special attention.  Because they just might be telling you what really matters.

Image credit:  ShutterStock|Stokkete