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Simon Calder: The true value of customer feedback

The man who pays his way

The question they never ask on Customer Satisfaction Questionnaires is, "What did you think of this questionnaire"?

A pity. The "CSQ" I filled out last weekend, after a holiday with an outpost of the Thomas Cook empire, could have offered the following multiple choices:

(a) intrusive

(b) impertinent

(c) infuriating

I would have ticked "all of the above".

Thomas Cook, like William Shakespeare, was an Englishman who transformed the world dramatically for the better. "His determination to improve the lives of working people by giving them opportunities to learn through travel was pioneering," says Manny Fontenla-Novoa, chief executive of the Thomas Cook Group.

When, 170 summers ago, Mr Cook organised his first excursion, he felt no need to issue Customer Satisfaction Questionnaires to the participants. Presumably he concluded that if they thought his trip from Leicester to Loughborough was any good they would book again and tell their friends; if not, they wouldn't. That remains the most valuable form of customer feedback. But in the consumer-centred 21st century, the company that still bears his name wants to know "How was it for you?"

The questionnaire at the end of my ski trip to Les Deux Alpes last week was issued by Neilson, part of Thomas Cook. It begins reasonably enough; any sensible travel company will be keen to learn what its customers thought of everything from the booking process to the airport check-in, the condition of the hotel and its staff.

"Your open and honest feedback helps us to continue to improve the high level of service you have come to expect from the oldest and best-known name in travel," says Mr Fontenla-Novoa.

The CSQ can be an honourable endeavour to identify weak points in the holiday package in order to improve them, and to learn what is important to customers.

But I started getting puzzled by page three of the Neilson CSQ, wondering what connection there might be between the skiing holiday I had just enjoyed – (a), excellent, thank you – and the make of car I (don't) drive. Charitably, the marketing folk may wish to determine if Deux Chevaux owners aim for Deux Alpes. But then the questionnaire became sinister: why does Messrs Cook need to know the companies from whom I buy electricity and gas?

The question "Who are your current utilities suppliers?" turned out to be mere small talk compared with the request to know the "Renewal date for car, buildings and home contents insurance?" I couldn't spot the box to tick for "After I've spent quite a lot of money on one of your holidays, if you think that I'm going to tell you information that might result in my being 'cold-called' shortly before my insurance is due for renewal, you clearly take me for a total chump".

Presumably, though, Messrs Cook has enough customers who tick the box marked "gullible" to make it worth including the cheekiest enquiry of all: the Mobile Phone Questions.

"Which network is your mobile phone on? Is it on contract? If so, which is your renewal month?". By now you may wonder whether you somehow muddled one of Britain's leading tour operators with an online identity-theft scam. The cynical traveller may conclude, "You don't care two hoots what I thought of the flight, or the bed, or the breakfasts. All you want is my contact details and spending habits so you can sell the information to other firms. Anyone who is fool enough to fill this out is an ideal target for any identity thief who gets his hands on the data". But a spokesperson for Thomas Cook UK & Ireland said, "Customer feedback on our holidays is very important, the results of which have a direct impact on our airlines, our hotels and our holiday brands. The independently reviewed CSQ Survey is managed by a reputable and experienced company, with all sections and data collection voluntary."

On second thoughts, "What did you think of this questionnaire?" is not the best question with which to end a CSQ. A better one is "Please outline in 50 words or fewer, what you suggest we do with the people who designed a questionnaire that covers territory way beyond your holiday?"

Answers on a postcard – it's safer than an email.

Have you been appalled – or impressed – by the end-of-holiday questionnaire? Either comment online or email travel@independent.co.uk. (You may wish to include the renewal date of your mobile phone contract.)