How Companies Use "Research" To Justify Really Dumb Decisions

Last Updated Jun 9, 2011 10:25 AM EDT

Be careful what you ask for -- and how you ask for it.

Here's what prompted my warning: Reader Margery Wilson shared a survey she received yesterday from Spirit Airlines, the no-frills, discount carrier that just went public.

Spirit is known for its high fees and irreverent fare specials, including its recent Weiner Sale.

Seriously, folks. I'm not making this up.

So the "poll" Wilson says she received should come as no surprise. Here's a sample question:

In our efforts to lower fares, customers have asked us if they can save by checking in online. After consideration, we wanted to ask your preference. Is your preference:

1. I prefer only to use web check-in and lower my fare. This is similar to certain government processing initiatives that allow one channel for submission but retain efficiency.

2. I don't mind paying higher fares by checking in online while subsidizing others who check in at the airport.

3. I prefer to pay less for checking in online and let customers who check in at the airport pay for the convenience.

4. I would rather just raise the federal debt ceiling and have taxpayers subsidize me for being lazy and not checking in online.

"You can't accuse them of being neutral in this survey," says Wilson. "Can you?"

Certainly not.

For the record, Wilson voted #2.

"I think the option to only allow online is silly -- not everyone has access to a printer," she told me. "When I am on the road, I often don't. And for heaven's sakes, they have check in kiosks -- they want to charge to use them?"

But you can make an educated guess on how the majority of Spirit passengers will vote. Of course they'll ask for lower fares in exchange for checking in online. Using a loaded term like "subsidizing" in the questions makes the answers an almost foregone conclusion.

Spirit apparently hasn't met a fee it doesn't like yet. A recent survey revealed that it extracts 22 percent of its revenues from what are euphemistically termed "ancillary" fees -- extras like luggage surcharge, seat reservation fees and charges for soft drinks. It ranks second among airlines behind Allegiant Air for its dependence on fees.

Naturally it would want to add a new fee for checking in at the airport. It's found money, right?

But there is such a thing as too many fees. Consider yesterday's dust-up over the soldiers who were charged extra for their bags when they returned from Afghanistan. Delta Air Lines is still licking its wounds from that viral video attack.

I'll have more thoughts on Spirit's fees tomorrow. But its survey raises a broader question about the nature of consumer research.

In his 2010 book Consumer.ology: The Market Research Myth, the Truth about Consumers and the Psychology of Shopping, Philip Graves suggests even the market research questions that seem reasonable often aren't.

"The fundamental tenet of market research is that you can ask people questions and that what they tell you in response will be true," he writes. "This is a largely baseless belief."

Put differently, even if Spirit's questions weren't as leading as they were, they still might not lead the airline to the right conclusion.

It may be easy to find fault with Spirit's methodology. But how about other companies that have engaged in market research and made seemingly rational choices based on the research -- but were wrong?

I suspect that adding a new fee is the wrong decision, by the way. But I have my own biases.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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Photo: Chris Erwin/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.