A recent call from a friend helped me realize that customer surveys are still often ill-conceived and poorly executed.  Common practices often neglect common sense and are rife with common mistakes. Here are some things to consider to improve customer surveys as you integrate them into your overall customer experience program.

  • First, customer survey value propositions are backwards.  Most surveys are done for the benefit of the company not customers (compare the two illustrations below to see the difference).  They publish surveys to learn more about what makes customers upset, what makes customers satisfied, and as a way to determine if customers are considering defecting to the competition. To get the most value from surveys, companies must ensure that completing the survey provides benefits to customers.  (Otherwise, why should customers respond?) Some companies provide benefits by sending a gift card for a coffee, placing customers in a drawing to win something, or giving customers an option to have someone at the company reach out to them about the responses.

  • Second, conducting surveys is easy but the high-impact benefits come from responding to the results. How will your company react when responses arrive?  If every customer responds positively, is your company likely to breathe a sigh of relief, throw a party, or determine how to turn goodwill into growth?  More likely companies are trying to identify and recover from problems.  How will your company react if every customer provides negative feedback? Are you prepared to rectify the issue?  If not, despite good intentions your survey will make a bad situation worse.  Regardless of whether you expect “good” or “bad” responses, set your survey sample size, audience, and frequency such that your company can respond in a meaningful way.
  • Third, companies must understand what they hope to accomplish via the survey. Often, companies already know their customers are upset.  If this is the case, other than reinforcing confirmation bias, what will a survey accomplish?  Their money would be better invested in fixing the issues than in asking customers to confirm what they already know. A survey seeking input to improve products will require a different set of responses than one designed to gauge satisfaction.
  • Finally, surveys shouldn’t be substitutes for other [more needed] conversations.  One organization I spoke with was planning to survey all their customers each week. This idea prompted visions of Verizon’s “can you hear me now” advertising campaign and made me think how annoyed I would be if I were asked about my satisfaction so frequently.  Customers expect products and services to meet their expectations. Don’t expect kudos for doing your job.  If, however, those products and services fail to measure up, customers expect to have avenues to receive timely relief.  The frequent survey model originally advocated seemed like a substitute for a robust support mechanism and would have likely created more animosity than goodwill.  For example, “you haven’t responded to my requests for help through normal channels, why should I expect better results after responding to this survey?!”

The pivot point is that surveys can and should remain a valuable customer experience tool.  But before reaching into the toolbox, consider:

  1. How the survey adds value to your customers
  2. How your company will react to both positive and negative responses
  3. What the goals are, and
  4. If your survey may be an excuse to avoid another bigger issue.

For additional ideas on improving your surveys, consult an article I wrote several years ago titled “Getting Powerball Results on Customer Surveys.”

Improving Customer Surveys
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