Chicken tikka carbonara – how to elicit negative feedback

I tried out a new Indian restaurant last week. The experience wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either. It was, well, mediocre. The waiter brought out the wrong food. My butter chicken turned out as a chicken tikka carbonara, and a poor one at that, with chunks of roasted chicken floating in a custard sauce. The naan bread was cold. When I ordered a pudding the waiter giggled and wrestled the menu out of my hands. They were good enough to bring out, unprompted, a glass of scotch at the end of the meal. Nice gesture, but I don’t like whisky. Horrible stuff.

At the end of the meal, the waiter asked how I’d enjoyed the meal. Fine, I mumbled, and smiled.

Maybe it’s a British thing, but I just don’t like giving feedback. Negative feedback, anyway. That’s a shame for me, but also a shame for the restaurant. This was a great opportunity for them to learn, to hear how poor their food was, and how much they could improve. But they missed it, because they had no way of gathering true feedback; no way of hearing anything other than what they wanted to hear.

The same is probably true of you. You’ve probably got no way of getting true feedback. If your product stank, if your management sucked or your service was lousy, would people tell you, or would they just mumble that it was fine, and smile?

There are things you can do though. As Bill Buxton points out, and as I’ve blogged about before, if you frame the question as a choice then it’s easier for people to give feedback. If I show you a single product design, you might shy away from telling me your true opinion. If I show you two or three options, you’ll be more open. It’s hard for you to tell me that widget A sucks, but you’ll tell me that you prefer widget B, and why.

You can apply this technique to other areas of your business too. Rather than ask your customers if they’re happy with your customer service, or to score it out of ten, you could ask them how it compares to other, concrete examples. How does it compare with their experiences with dealing with Microsoft, or Symantec? With their insurance company, or their bank?

Another trick is watch what people do and not what they say. I said that my meal was fine, but what I didn’t do was eat it. People might say that your product is great, but if they don’t buy it that tells you more. They might say that the design is fine, but you need to watch them to see if they can use it. They might say they’re happy with your customer service, but what do they do during those interactions?

There are plenty of chicken tikka carbonaras in the world of software. Sometimes they’re obvious and there’s no lack of honest feedback (Vista and Office 2007 are the most egregious examples), but quiet mediocrity is more dangerous. How would you know if you’re serving up chicken tikka carbonaras? And how do you give, and elicit, honest feedback? Post here …