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 …

7 responses to “Chicken tikka carbonara – how to elicit negative feedback”

  1. DoppelFrog says:

    I hate to ask, but what the hell is “chicken tikka carbonara”?!?
    Is that some sort of crazy Indian-Italian fusion, or is it just chicken tikka masala gone wrong?
    Oh, and good article on ways to get more honest feedback from users/customers too!

  2. DoppelFrog,
    Thanks for the comment.
    It’s butter chicken gone horribly wrong. I don’t recommend it.
    – Neil

  3. Rob Allen says:

    Do we get to see the name of the place so we can avoid the butter chicken surprise?

  4. Rob Allen says:

    On a more constructive note:
    Offering comparisons instead of a

  5. Larry Port says:

    That’s funny that you mention that not liking to give negative feedback is a British thing. As far as I’m concerned, the master of negative feedback hails from the UK: Simon Cowell of American Idol!
    We continually ask our customers what they would improve if the could. That tells you where you’re weak. A way to phrase this is, “what opportunities do we have to improve the product?” or “what’s painful with our system.”
    I think, as Jack Welch mentioned in “Winning”, that above all, you must embrace a culture of candor in your organization, where the Simons are valued more than the Paulas.

  6. Andy Brice says:

    I think you are much more likely to get honest feedback via email than face-to-face.
    As you say it is also about how you frame the question. I ask my customers what we could do better. And they tell me.
    Ps/ You order dessert in an Indian restaurant? Are you mad?! ;0)

  7. embe says:

    Beeing French, the first time I was asked how I found the food in a Cambridge restaurant, I said quite honnestly “the sauce was fine, but the eggplant was rather uncooked. I think it needed another 10 min in the hoven.” At that point, my colleague could not help but giggling, while the waiter stopped breathing and turned red.
    I was then told, outside of the restaurant that you shall not usually give negative feedback.
    This experience taugh me 3 things:
    – I know now where english food reputation comes from 🙂
    – As a producer, if you do ask feedback, you need to be prepared to receive it and act. Not do it for pure politeness 🙂
    – As a customer, you need to give constructive feedback. Good and Bad. Else things will never improve. Worse, I bet that all the things you liked will degrade, whereas new silly features you dislike will appear.