survey design

don’t ask if you don’t care

“Did we use a travel agent?” My daughter was filling out a customer survey card during breakfast at the hotel.

Amongst all the “how would you rate…?” questions was a question asking how we reserved the room. A good thing to ask really. If I owned the hotel, I’d certainly want to know how my customers were finding and booking rooms because it would let me know where to direct my marketing efforts.


In a classic example of truly bad survey design, there were only two possible answers: travel agent or toll-free reservation number. This would have been a poor question 15 years ago because I can think of at least three other possible answers: 1) I didn’t make reservations. We just chose the hotel as we were passing through; 2) I called the local hotel number (not the nationwide toll free number); and 3) Other: [fill in the blank].

Today there’s this thing called the “Internet” which the hotel apparently hasn’t heard of. That opens up more reservation options, although I could probably narrow it to two: 1) the hotel’s website; and 2) a travel website such as,, etc.

So just what are they doing with the information they gather? I try to picture the marketing meeting where someone says with a straight face that 83% (or whatever) of their guests use travel agents and the rest use the 800 number. Someone, someone, someone at that meeting would have to ask about online reservations. And the survey would be updated to gather better information.

Because it was a bad survey before it was a woefully outdated survey, I can only conclude that they truly don’t care about my answer. If no one is giving that question’s results even causal scrutiny, it’s pretty safe to assume that the rest of it is being ignored as well.

Survey design is hard – practically a science onto itself – and really easy to do badly. Customer surveys are a great way to get useful information to improve your service, refine your product line, or do a better job with internal customers. I don’t admit to knowing anything about survey design for the same reason I don’t admit to knowing anything about hanging sheetrock. But if I did know anything, I’d give this advice: If you care, then care. If you don’t care, that’s fine, but don’t pretend you do.

A good rule of thumb for surveys (and basic human interaction): Don’t ask the question if you don’t want to know the answer.