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Connect with the Customer Through Open-ended Context

Due to ever-changing business environments and customer attitudes, it is imperative businesses continue to understand and measure their customers in ways that provide evolving rich detail. An increase in open-ended inquiry in market research provides this foundation.



Market research, through the process of gathering information about markets and customers, facilitates an increase in profitability and achievement of goals. Customers, conceptualized as a current or potential user of a product or service, such as a shopper of Store A, user of Product N, potential student of College T, or citizen of City Z, possess a plethora of information that is waiting to be tapped. When businesses connect with their customers through various survey mediums they open themselves up to new paradigms, new truths, new markets, etc. that were once hidden.

Market research serves to strengthen the relationship between the business entity and the customer. Growth of the business hinges on this relationship. Through this research the business will know what is needed in order to retain, regain, and gain customers.

Businesses that fail to learn or fully appreciate customer needs and preferences are likely to lose their share of the market. Generally, individuals and groups will share their latent attitudes, intents, and drivers if they receive some form of invitation. Due to ever-changing business environments and customer attitudes, it is imperative businesses continue to understand and measure their customers. The first research experience by the business into the customer world should be a follow up measurement occurring shortly after the first encounter and include questioning that is based on the initial interaction. The subsequent re-visits provide historical trends that are not visible in a cross-sectional, one time sampling.

The first step into the customer’s world requires a methodologically sound footing. The validity and reliability of the findings will be suspect if not done properly. The future direction and perspective that businesses assume from the research will be tainted if not done correctly. The initial collection of customer data must be done in such a way that the ‘what,’ the action, and ‘why,’ the motive or reason, are clearly revealed.


Problem Statement

Forever studying the customer, but never reaching the heart of their beliefs.

Businesses are failing to completely connect with their customers because they are not asking accurate questions that adequately elicit perceptions, preferences, attitudes, memories, and opinions.


Previous Options

Businesses desiring to connect with their clients through sampling will design a set of questions based on what the business wants to know and what the business already knows about the customer. Though the business likely has a great grasp of their own business environment, they do not adequately know the customer to construct questions and response choices. The top-down approach relies heavily upon closed-end, aided questions. Closed-end questions that do not have prior customer input will complicate the ability of the business to properly interpret the attitude of the customer. There are many reasons for not including the customer’s voice before crafting the questions, mainly costs, but the risks associated with not including the customer in question development must be weighed against benefits, research goals, and desired level of results accuracy. The use of response options before knowing the customer can sometimes inform the respondent of the business’ expectations for desired answers and their perceptions of customers (Biemer and Lyberg 2003). The time, money, and effort saved by asking closed-end questions will be of little value if the business is unable to accurately frame the customer’s perception after the data has been gathered.

As businesses realize that they do not fully understand customers they compound the problem by adding more closed-end questions to the survey. The survey grows in length and complexity, but there continues to be a lack of clarity concerning the customer. In large part, open-end questions are underutilized.


Discovery Research Group Solution

Begin with a solid foundation; one that is rooted in the customer’s perspective and that brings the client’s voice to the forefront. When doing market research, more open-end questions need to be coupled with the closed-end questions typically utilized. This is especially true when a business first asks their customers for information, but it is also important when dealing with difficult topics or if the same questions have repeatedly been asked for an extended period of time. Asking customers to respond openly with a verbatim response to closed-end questions that have been oft employed will ensure that response options are still in line with customer sentiment. The underlying causes for perceptions and actions need to be measured to accurately place the quantitative, closedend, aided questions in context.


Benefit 1

Depth and clarity to an issue. Wonderful things happen when respondents are allowed the opportunity to get outside the confines of the response options from closed-end questions. Respondent verbatim answers will provide much more flavor than picking from a list of response options (Sudman and Bradburn 1974). Below is an example of the differences between open- and closed-end questions.

Example of open-ended questions

In this example, most open-end responses will fall into the closed-end response options, but additional information is left behind. In examining the open-end responses we see that it is possible to distinguish between positive and negative responses, other important problems that are not listed in the closed-end response list, and the blending of multiple closed-end response options.

Review of customer responses will also reveal the disconnect between business and customer interpretation of the question and/or response options. For example, a business wishing to know customer views concerning their products’ durability ask customers to rate it in a survey. The business envisions durability as relating to the strength of the product without breaking, but most customers perceive it as pertaining to how long the product will last before needing repairs. Having the customer and business in sync will provide greater understanding and improved usability of the results. Improved question wording would remove some nuance, but certain words will have different meanings depending on the customers’ cultural and life experiences or educational and occupational training.


Benefit 2

Responses to open-ended questions will provide the response categories for the future closed-end questions. As a result, the question wording and response options will be better tailored for the client and will thus provide answers that more closely align with their attitudes, perceptions, and actions. Inadvertently or intentionally leaving out response options will alter how customers respond to questions. They may choose ‘Other’ or another response option altogether that does not reflect their true feelings. When open-ended questions are used more regularly, the clarity of data and analysis will yield increased dividends. Without first asking open-ended questions before using closed-end questions, the interpretation of results for application by the business may be flawed or difficult to assess and the money invested will not have been well spent. An introductory or follow-up study that utilizes open-ended questions will benefit a business by providing a better understanding of their customer. Businesses will have data that will allow for more accurate recommendations and predictions.


Benefit 3

Expect the unexpected. Trends and additional areas of importance to the customer will be revealed. As shown in the example of Benefit 1, responses to open-ended questions are rich in nature. Customers frequently provide detailed answers, responses that include more information than is requested. As a result, they provide the business with, at the least, additional areas to explore for relevance and importance. Unless the emerging trend or preference is a response option in a closed-end question it will not be expressed back to the business.


Benefit 4

Open-ended studies can utilize far fewer customer respondents. Sampling small groups of customers provides response options for future research and uncovers hidden or slowly emerging trends. As a result of asking for feedback from fewer individuals, businesses can expect fewer days administering the questions to the selected group of customers, spending less in interviewer time if calling customers over the phone; and fewer hours to organize the results of the responses. If the business were interested in results that are more generalizable and not necessarily interested in following up the open-ended with a closed-end question in a subsequent questionnaire, then a larger sample would be required.



The first step is to determine if open-ended questions are right for the situation. In most instances implementing closed-end questions are beneficial, but talking with a research professional will help determine the best overall approach. Asking customers open-ended questions is best suited for first time research, difficult questions, and when revisiting closed-end questions by asking them in an unaided fashion. Once it has been determined that the open-ended question format is applicable, the next step is to write the question. When writing a survey question, open-ended or closed-end, it is important to remember a few key principles (Fowler 1995): 1) Stick with first-hand experiences; 2) Ask one question at a time; 3) Question wording and structure should be carefully reviewed for multiple, hidden, or misinterpreted meaning so that all respondents are interpreting the question in the same way and answering the same question; 4) provide enough information (introduction, definition, response options stated last) so that all respondents are prepared to answer the question after reading or hearing it; 5) state what constitutes an adequate answer; and 6) organize the questions for easier reading of questions, following of instructions, and recording of answers for the interviewer and customer.



Sampling customers for feedback on business processes and satisfaction is paramount to a business’s success. In researching their customers, the business is able to determine what things are important to retain, regain, and gain customers. The findings help to remove differences between what a business provides and the needs and wants of the customer. Regularly sampling customers is beneficial due to the ability to see how customer views change over time. To ensure correct wording and response choices, it is important to ask customers for open-ended verbatim responses at the onset of getting feedback and when revisiting questions that have been utilized for an extended period. Open-ended questions can strengthen a business’ understanding concerning the perceptions, preferences, attitudes, memories, and opinions of customers. Allowing the respondent the opportunity to openly express their views provides valuable unexpected answers and more accurate recommendations and predictions.



Biemer, Paul P. and Lars E. Lyberg. 2003. Introduction to Survey Quality. Hoboken, NJ:

Wiley. Fowler, Floyd J. 1995. Improving Survey Questions: Design and Evaluation. London: Sage Publications.

Sudman, Seymour and Norman M. Bradburn. 1974. Response Effects in Surveys: A Review and Synthesis. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.


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Discovery Research Group

Discovery Research Group

Salt Lake City, Utah, United States of America
(800) 678-3748
About Discovery Research Group:
Discovery Research Group provides multi- service market research solutions by leveraging traditional research with new market research techniques.

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