It Matters How You Ask the Question

In Made to Stick, The Heath brothers recount a story about Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, and one of his marketing people. Tracy from marketing says that her customer surveys show that passengers would like a light meal instead of the peanuts offered on their Houston to Las Vegas flight. Kelleher responds, saying, “Tracy, will adding that chicken caesar salad make us the low-fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas? Because if it doesn’t help us become the unchllenged low-fare airline, we’re not serving any damn chicken salad.”

I take the point of that story to be that the customer isn’t always right. Sometimes the customer is completely wrong, or, more precisely, you didn’t ask the customer the right question. If Tracy had asked in her survey whether people would like to have a chicken salad or the absolute lowest fares, I’m guessing she’d have gotten different results. I see these kind of polling errors all the time. My first exposure was when I was in high school. My math teacher, Mr. Burns, was studying to be an auctioneer. Some friends and I went to his first auction. It was an estate auction so there was lots of junk going on the block. At one point, Mr. Burns held up a rusty old set of roller skates and asked for bids starting at ten dollars. He worked his way down to twenty-five cents without getting a bid. At that point, he turns to a lady in the front and asks, “You’d pay twenty-five cents for these old skates, wouldn’t you?” The lady nods her head. Burns shouts, “Sold!”

A recent exposure to this idea of how you ask the question came when I read that well over 90 percent of French citizens are organ donors, while the number in the US is closer to 30 percent. That didn’t seem right so I read on. It turns out that in France, you are automatically an organ donor unless you opt out, while here in the US, you must choose to opt in.

Before you accept the results of surveys, find out how they asked the questions. See what I mean.

Make Yourself Happy

In a recent article in Wired Magazine, Josh McHugh writes about Charles Barber’s shock at discovering that the everyday people he interacted with were taking the same psychotropic drugs as the schizoid, homeless, crackhead patients he was treating in Bellevue Hospital. He goes on to summarize Barber’s view of the drug industry and its willingness to blatantly peddle drugs to us. The whole thing strikes a chord with me after having spent the better part of the last decade trying to find help for my youngest child. However, I blame the drug industry less than the psychiatric professionals. Mental Health today is where physical health was in the Dark Ages.

We heard so many half-baked theories about what was wrong with our son and what “treatment” was going to help him. There were points where I would not have been surprised if the therapist had pulled out a chicken claw and waved it over us while screaming something primal that would chase away the evil spirits who were interfering with us. Insert into this mess a promotion for a little blue (or yellow, or green, or even white) pill that will make everything better and you get a line of people wanting to have that pill.

Barber, according to McHugh, thinks we should say no to the “drug peddlers” and turn our hopes instead to “talk therapy” techniques. I challenge him to spend some time researching the history of this approach before he starts throwing stones at the drug industry. Start with a Newsweek article by Sharon Begley. In it, she describes the lack of research to substantiate the success of McHugh’s recommended “talk therapy.”

Having witnessed and experienced both drug and talk therapy in the past decade, I believe this is a Buyer Beware marketplace. Mental health today is where the rest of medicine was in the Dark Ages. I constantly expected one of the therapists to reach into a desk drawer and pull our a chicken claw to wave over my head in order to heal me.


I’ve been a member of a group of business owners for several years. Today was the first half of a leadership retreat that we’re doing at the Edward Lowe Foundation in southern Michigan. We took a break to watch the Colts lose in the last 5 minutes to the New England Patriots (a depressing result for us), then we took the Clifton Strengths Finder survey online.

It’s an interesting idea that we spend so much of our time trying to improve our weaknesses instead of increasing our strengths. The folks behind this website say that’s backwards and we would all be better off if we worked from our strengths instead. I accept that in principle, but it’s hard to break the habit of trying to be more well-rounded.

Getting Good Press

Scott Jones is a local technology entrepreneur. He made his first big splash when he was still in his 20s by working night and day for three months to create a new (and much better) voicemail system for telephone companies. The system’s success allowed him to retire in his early 30s. Retirement didn’t fit so he’s been involved in a series of startup ventures since. You can read all about him easily because he’s the cover story of the most recent Fortune Small Business.

Now I’ve met Scott many times — probably enough that he recognizes my face but would have a hard time putting a name with it. He’s a nice guy, and, while he isn’t afraid to spend extravagently, being filthy rich hasn’t made him as insufferable as others with less wealth. By the same token, he’s hardly the genial, easygoing guy that FSB describes, which leads to my point. Controlling the message is far more important than controlling the facts. I’m not trying to say that Scott’s story isn’t true in every detail given. I’m just saying that a deeper investigation might find more blemishes than his eating with a three foot long fork. Scott didn’t become the cover story by accident. Someone responsible for getting good press for Scott Jones is getting the credit for this coup, I’ll bet.

This happens all the time. You get more fired up when people talk about a “Death Tax” than an inheritance tax. “War” on anything is better than crackdowns, which are better than reduction programs. Of course, 90 percent lean is far better than 10 percent fat. I’m sure you get the point, and probably are already thinking of your favorite examples.

Now you’re really thinking of examples, aren’t you? That’s because I just pre-conditioned you to think about them — a simple proof of the importance of controlling the message.