One of the most common errors found on evaluation forms and customer surveys is the misuse of the “not applicable” and “neutral” options. It is devastating because so much critical information is lost by well-intentioned survey creators. Save your team a lot of headaches and put yourself ahead of 99% of “the experts” with this insider information:
One way of losing information is by allowing respondents to skip questions for which they certainly hold an opinion. Surveys often contain options labeled “Not Applicable” or “Neither Agree nor Disagree” or “Neutral”. These choices are appropriate when respondents may not have the information or experience to answer. But they should be used strategically, not provided as an option for ALL items. Here are a few examples:
1. Overall, my experience at this store was: Excellent / Good / Fair / Poor / Not Applicable
2. My instructor’s communication style was effective: Strongly Agree / Agree / Disagree / Strongly Disagree / N/A
3. I would recommend this business to my friends or colleague: Yes / No / Not Sure
In each case above, the respondent has certainly had an experience and can provide some feedback. For #1, the individual did visit the store. She may not have bought anything and may not have stayed long, but she must have some opinion and that is what you are soliciting.
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Providing a “Not Applicable” option allows the respondent to prevent you from learning her opinion. The Not Applicable option may be fine for other categories, such as questions about customer service or the public restrooms, which the respondent may not have used.
In #2 above, all students in the training session listened to the instructor. And all students should have some opinion on the instructor’s communication style. But some proportion of respondents will choose “N/A” since it is offered, and you will lose their information. The N/A option may be fine for questions about measures of performance (that may not have been administered) or course materials (that may not have been distributed). All students should provide an opinion on characteristics of the instructor.
In #3, the “not sure” option may comprise a significant proportion of the respondents, providing you with little information except that they weren’t convinced. A much better alternative is to force respondents to make a choice but allow them to “lean” in one direction or the other, as in this variation:
4. I would recommend this business to my friends: Definitely Yes / Probably Yes / Probably No / Definitely No
Respondents can choose “probably yes” to indicate that they are not enthusiastic or plan to actively promote your business and that something has caused them to not say “definitely yes”. Respondents can choose “probably no” to not be a full rejection, that they have concerns or perhaps do not know enough information to recommend. Both provide far more information about their decisions than the response of “not sure” or a neutral point. In each case, you will want to review their comments to learn why they responded as they did.
Takeaway: Carefully review each item on your survey that contains a neutral option. Consider whether there could be a situation in which respondents will not have sufficient information or experience to answer. Only for those items should a neutral option be present.