As consumers, we receive tons of requests from companies to complete surveys these days. During most restaurant visits, the waiters or waitresses ask us to complete a questionnaire. Retailers print a phone number or web address on their receipts, and they request that we complete a survey. After we purchase a car, the automobile company calls our home trying to solicit responses about our car-buying experience. Do companies learn a great deal from these surveys, or might they be drawing erroneous conclusions at times?
Researchers David Gal and Derek Rucker at Kellogg Business School have examined a key form of response bias that may trip up companies. Specifically, they have demonstrated that consumers get quite frustrated when the survey instruments fail to ask them about key issues about which they would like to comment or respond. In those cases, the unasked question becomes a serious problem. Why? It turns out that consumers often engage in a behavior that the scholars call "response substitution." As researcher Derek Rucker says, "People don’t
answer the question they’re asked. Instead, they supply an opinion they
want to share."
For example, a consumer may report that they did not like the food at a particular restaurant, when in fact, they really had an issue with the ambiance. Perhaps the restaurant was a bit too loud. However, if the survey doesn't ask about the ambiance, then the consumer may substitute their displeasure on a different question, such as one related to the quality of the meal. In those cases, the restaurant may come to two misguided conclusions. First, they may determine that the food quality must be improved, when the consumer actually likes the meals provided. Second, the restaurant may not even realize that they have an ambiance problem. The scholars recommend providing the consumer with a chance to offer an open-ended response in an "additional comments" section, so as to dig a bit deeper regarding consumer displeasure.