On Saturday, I spent an hour or so shopping at my local Whole Foods. About halfway through my shopping trip, a Whole Foods associate greeted me, told me she was seeking feedback from customers, and then asked me if I had anything that I'd like to share with her about my experience at Whole Foods. She mentioned that it could be anything at all... about products, service, items they don't offer that they should, etc. She expressed interest in my response, asked a number of follow-up questions, and thanked me for my input.
This brief interaction struck me because she did not have a predetermined agenda, list of survey questions, or interview protocol. She made it very clear that she was open to any and all ideas, input, suggestions, critiques, etc. Her openness struck me as the exact opposite of so much customer research today at many firms. Far too many companies ask their customers leading questions, though often inadvertently. As a result, they come to erroneous conclusions based upon their market research. The Whole Foods associate clearly was trying to avoid affecting my response with any bias whatsoever.
Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has done some remarkable research demonstrating the power of leading questions. For instance, in one wonderful experiment, she showed subjects video of an automobile accident. She asked half the students, “How fast was the white sports car going when it passed the barn while traveling along the country road?” In fact, the video showed no barn along the street. The other half received the same question, except without mention of the barn. Loftus then asked all the students, “Did you see a barn?” Roughly six times as many students in the first group than in the second indicated that they had seen a barn in the video!