To Change Your Audience’s Perspective, Ask for a Compliment

March 13, 2017 Krystal Overmyer

consumer behavior

A small-but-growing business wants to jumpstart its email marketing, so it seeks out two B2B software companies for help. After 30-day software trials, both send their potential client a customer feedback survey. The surveys are identical, save for one key question. The client ultimately goes with the company with the better survey.

The above example is simplistic, but it may not be all that far-fetched. New research shows that simple psychological sleight of hand can turn those cursory customer surveys into powerful drivers of consumer behavior.

Most B2B and B2C companies routinely ask their customers for feedback in order to figure out what they need to improve and what they should keep on doing. A study in the Journal of Marketing Research found that the way brands ask for this feedback can actually influence how customers feel about them.

An in-stall toile cleanliness rating touchscreen

The Power of Positivity

Specifically, researchers found that starting a survey with open-ended, positive-leaning questions (e.g., “What went well during your visit?”) actually makes customers think more highly of the brand.

The simple act of compliment-fishing had multiple effects. Customers reported increased levels of satisfaction. They were more likely to purchase again, and spend more money when they did. Loyalty improved as well, as noted in the Harvard Business Review.

Researchers call these invitations “open-ended positive solicitations.” The psychological idea is pretty intuitive to grasp: Ask a customer about what went well during her interaction with your brand, and she’s likely to start reframing her entire experience in a more positive light. Conversely, if you start off by asking a customer what went wrong, you might be solidifying his negative perception.

The researchers tested their hypotheses with a B2C retail chain and a B2B software provider, as reported by the American Marketing Association. Customers from each business were randomly split into two groups. One group received a customer feedback survey with closed-end quality questions (e.g. “Please rate the cleanliness of the store”). The other group received the same questions, plus a new first question that asked for feedback about what went well during a recent visit or what the user liked about a software trial.

The positive-leaning surveys gave a big boost in sales to both the B2B and B2C companies. Over the next year, the retail chain customers completed nine percent more transactions and spent 8 percent more with the company. The B2B software firm customers spent 32 percent more on the company’s products. In both cases, customers who were asked to give a compliment scored higher on satisfaction measures.

This practice is so powerful that even customers who had bad experiences with the company were affected. When they got the survey with the positive-leaning question, they, too, spent more with the company.

The man thinks that the sky is good.

These results are fascinating, because they suggest that a very simple survey tweak changes consumer behavior and boost sales. Considering that most companies already employ surveys, adding open-ended positive solicitations could be a low-cost way to shape how consumers feel about the brand, strengthen their loyalty, and boost their willingness to do business with you in the future.

In addition, asking users to share positive experiences can be a powerful tool in your content strategy arsenal. Brands love tooting their own horns, and soliciting and sharing positive feedback helps generate positive buzz about the brand. For B2B companies, learning about your customers’ positive experiences can reveal how you might focus future content; you may also discover some customer testimonials.

Positivity in Moderation

While influencing customer behavior through surveys is a tantalizing prospect, it’s important for brands to understand how tweaking their surveys could make them less valuable in the long run.

For example, if a B2B software company uses the open-ended positive solicitation technique, the company may find their survey results are improving. But are these surveys distorted? It’s possible that asking a positive question at the beginning of the survey could cause people to gloss over any criticism they have for the brand, product, process, or experience. Negative feedback is critical for brands to understand where they need to improve. If brands can’t get unbiased information about what they need to do better, they will have difficulty making company decisions.

Still, it’s important to provide customers avenues for positive feedback. Asking for it can be a powerful tool, even in conversations with clients. For example, when you call a client who has sided with a competitor, you want to know what you did wrong that led to you parting ways. But during that conversation, you might also ask what they liked about your brand or service. It’s possible that the very act of asking for positive feedback could reshape their opinion and encourage them to return.

Asking customers to share what they like about your brand experience could be the jolt of positivity your content strategy needs. But a lot of companies, by focusing so tightly on what went wrong, forget to ask customers what went right.

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