Has this ever happened to you?

You go out for a nice dinner at a new restaurant you’ve been meaning to try, hungry and hopeful. After a 30-minute wait, the host seats you at a cramped table next to the kitchen door. When the server finally shows up, he seems distracted and bored. The food arrives late, cold, and undercooked. All-in-all, a disappointing experience.

At the end of the meal, when the waiter plunks down the bill and asks, “Was everything OK?” you say “Fine.” And you walk out, never to return again. If you’re a social consumer, you might tweet about the experience or post a negative review on Yelp! or some other customer reviews site from your smartphone on the ride home.

Most people are guilty of not always being 100% truthful when a business asks, “How did we do?” So why does politeness prevail when the customer is clearly unsatisfied? Because it’s human nature to avoid confrontation and an uncomfortable situation. It’s easier for some people to say “Everything’s fine,” knowing they’ll never patronize that business again.

This “everything’s fine = something’s wrong” scenario doesn’t just happen at restaurants. It can happen to any type of business or organization that provides products or services to customers —  retail stores, hotels and tourism agencies, spas and salons, any and all services industries. It’s a huge opportunity lost for the business, which doesn’t get a chance to make what went wrong right. Or even to improve on something that could be done better.

There are a few things you can do to encourage customers to give you useful feedback.

1. Ask Specific Questions 

Whether you’re writing a customer satisfaction survey or verbally asking customers about their experience, be specific in what you’re asking about. It’s too tempting for polite customers to answer “fine” to the vague “How did we do?” Show them you’re listening, and open the door to honest conversation. Ask about the specific products or services you’ve provided, and “What could we have done better?” to improve the customer experience. Make customer input part of your company story on Facebook and Twitter, in your email newsletter, and on your website.

2. Ask While the Experience Is Fresh

One of my favorite restaurants brings diners an iPod Touch mounted to a board at the end of the meal, with a short survey and email sign-up form pre-loaded. That’s an innovative way to get customers’ opinions while the experience is still fresh! Don’t wait to crack the nut of customer participation. Whatever tools you use to gauge customer satisfaction — online surveys, a follow-up email message, an in-person conversation while they’re ringing out at your cash register, or a phone call when a project is complete — ask for that honest feedback before the experience fades.

3. Listen to What They’re Saying on Social Media

While some customers may be shy about telling businesses to their faces what they really think, today’s social consumers are shouting their opinions from the roof tops. Social media channels and consumer review websites, along with local online directories, give customers a megaphone to blast their views. You may be surprised to learn what’s already being said about your business. Listen to what people are saying — about your business and your industry — and engage those customers in two-way conversation. Let them know you’re listening and that their opinions matter.

For more on gathering business intelligence from the people who matter most — your audience — read my latest column on Entrepreneur.com, “Your Customers Are Talking. Are You Listening?