Many customer service surveys are focused on pinpointing areas of friction or areas needing improvement. A recent Harvard Business Review article, however, noted that asking customers what went right can raise perceptions of the service provided.

Instead of simply asking customers to rate a product or service and reasons for the rating, then, a good business strategy is to ask "What went well during your visit?" and to ask it first.

Asking the question, and asking it first, was correlated with increases in customer satisfaction and repeat business. Customers approached in this way also spent more on the products and services of the customers who asked it by 9%.

Highlighting the Positive

There are two possible reasons for the positive effect. First, asking customers to recount a good experience, even if it is followed by questioning eliciting less than stellar experiences, implants a positive memory. It primes the customer to emphasize the positive.

The second reason centers on cognitive dissonance. People do not feel comfortable holding contradictory feelings or thoughts in their minds about a single entity. If their experience provoked a mix of positive and negative experiences, they will not feel comfortable holding both in their mind. Being asked to articulate a positive may move them to resolve cognitive dissonance by focusing on the positive.

Beware of Pitfalls

While asking for a positive experience first leads to improved results, it also raises the possibility of manipulating the consumer too much. If questions are too leading, after all, the recipients may feel annoyed rather than inclined to be positive.

Researchers in the HBR article noted that over manipulation is indeed a risk. They also noted, however, that placing a positive-eliciting question in a survey and moving it around is unlikely to mask truly poor customer service performance.

Some felt that not only might customers feel manipulated, but that employees might be tempted to try to inflate their positive responses, especially in instances where positive responses are linked with bonuses or higher pay.

One solution to those fears is to continue to give original surveys - those without positive lead-in questions - to a control group of customers. Companies could then track both sets of responses and compare them with each other.

Some also cautioned against trying to use the techniques in situations where asking for a positive aspect would clearly be inappropriate, such as after a funeral service.

A Chance to Build Relationships

But researchers focused more on the positive questions as a chance for a company to build relationships with its customers. A positive response, after all, is a good indication of what a customer sees as going right. Long term, it can guide an organization to strengths it can focus on, both in business strategy and in marketing.

Customer surveys provide multiple chances to build relationships. Responses, for example, can also be mined for areas where the customer would like more goods and services, or delivery in a different way.

Once these are mined, the goods and services can be provided. Surveys that follow up and elicit responses can then build a loop between a company and a customer in an ongoing positive way.