“How did you decide?” is the question you should be asking

People answer the questions that you ask them. What they won’t do is tell you whether those questions matter. 

  • What’s your perception of ___?
  • How does our pricing compare to competitors?
  • How likely would you be to recommend us to a friend?
  • How satisfied are you with ____?
  • How disappointed would you be if you could no longer use ___?

You’ve probably been asked these questions about some product or service you recently purchased.  You may be the one asking these questions. 

And also, none of them are as useful as asking “How did you decide…?”

Tell me how you decided to choose X over Y.  Tell me how you decided now was the time to purchase. Tell me what pain point was the tipping point.  Tell me who had requirements, who made the business case for it, who had to be convinced.

When we ask about pricing or perception, here’s what we are thinking:  this is a lever; if I move this lever, can I change the outcomes?    

What we should be starting with is this: what are the levers that matter?

And then: will these levers’ priority be consistent over time and changing situations?

Let’s walk through a couple examples. 

I recently bought some fancy lotion.  If someone asked me about perception, price, or satisfaction, I’d give positive ratings.  How did I decide to buy it?  I was sunburned and hoping for pain relief (literally: pain points!).  Would I buy this lotion again if not sunburned? Probably not.

I recently renewed a SaaS subscription for a tool my team uses.  If someone asked me about perception, satisfaction, or likelihood to recommend, I’d give negative ratings.   How did I decide to buy it? It does a just-okay job with a task that we frequently perform.  Would I be happy about buying this tool again? Probably not.  Would I invest time in seeking an alternative? Also probably not.

An early stage startup chooses a tool primarily because it’s free and good-enough-for-now. It doesn’t matter how they’d rate it in terms of satisfaction, perception, or any other criteria because they’re at a weird point in time. In a year, they’ll be out of business or they’ll be successful enough that “price” is no longer a significant lever in their decision-making process.

“How we decided” tells you a lot about what mattered at the time — it’s not always rational! I t won’t necessarily matter the same amount in the future! It can reveal a lot about priorities and decision-makers and whether you have an opportunity to disrupt the next decision. It’s also a question you should keep asking, because the answer’s validity ‘expires’ within months to a couple of years.