Customer Death by Survey? Or Just Bad Surveys?

I recently wrote an article in RainToday called How To Annoy Your Client  Without Really Trying, about the excess of customer satisfaction metrics.

Wouldn’t you know it – someone disagreed with me! I know, hard to believe…

But in this case, the someone was pretty interesting and had some good points to make. So please meet Erich Dietz, of Mindshare Technologies.


Charlie: Erich, welcome. Let’s jump right in. Consumers are getting surveyed to death… but how can one argue that the solution is as simple as changing the survey script?

Erich: You’re 100% right that every time a consumer turns around they are getting hit with surveys – surveys from every business they have ever interacted with. It’s a painful exercise that feeds a market research propeller head in an ivory tower somewhere who never shares what he/she knows; that’s what the problem is.

Which means I also agree with you that the solution is not as simple as changing a survey script.

Charlie: Well, now we’re getting somewhere!

Erich: This is one of those cases where dirt-simple solutions just aren’t realistic. Businesses must change their mindset – from surveying customers to engaging them.

Engagement derives from demonstrating respect for the customer’s time, showing that feedback is actually being used, and using surveys as part of a meaningful, recurring dialogue.

Charlie: So, it’s one of those mindset things: back to ground zero.

Erich: Did you really think otherwise? Me neither.

Unfortunately there will always be businesses that survey in a customer-unfriendly way. But I don’t think anyone is seriously proposing legislation to regulate or ban bad surveying.

What’s important is not how bad most surveying is – what’s important is how a smart company can take advantage of that.  Let me suggest that if your business surveys the right way, then out of the 1,000 survey-invites the customer gets in a day, yours will be the one they elect to take. And that’s huge.

Charlie: That is pretty big, actually, and what you’re saying is the bad surveys actually make it easier for the really good ones to stand out.

So let’s jump to the question that begs: how does a business go about surveying the “right” way?

Erich: They increase their focus and commitment to structure, communication, and engagement. Let me start with structure.

Too many surveys are written for the surveyor; they end up long and rigid. Reduce the length of the surveys, focus more heavily on allowing customers to share their experiences, wants, interests, etc. in their own words.  This is a radical change from asking the customer to conform to their rating scales or menu choices on every data point.

Transactional surveys should be no more than 2 minutes, and should set accurate expectations with the invite (e.g. “please answer 4 brief questions”).

I strongly recommend that, wherever possible, businesses compensate customers for their time. Think about ways to compensate the survey customer that can actually drive incremental revenue back into the business.

Charlie: Cool! What about communication?

Erich: When did you last feel that your feedback went anywhere meaningful? Most businesses miss the simple layup – tell the customer when they make a change based on customer feedback!  You have to show customers you’re listening to – and acting on – the feedback they’ve spent their valuable time providing. Show them their time was not spent in vain.

Charlie: Common sense, even though it’s not common. Engagement?

Erich: Use surveys to enhance and deepen customer conversations. When a surveyed customer indicates service lapse, make sure the front line is empowered to follow up – personally.

Conversely, for those customers who indicated positive experiences – reach out, frequently, just to say thank you.

Charlie: Erich, those are eminently sound recommendations. If all survey designers took your advice – well, that’s an interesting thought-experiment. It occurs to me the effect would be massive. Thanks so much for taking time with us.

Erich: A pleasure, Charlie.


6 replies
  1. Sonja Jefferson
    Sonja Jefferson says:

    That’s a really useful article. Thanks Charlie and Eric. 

    I’ve been on the receiving end of many a customer survey and it’s very rare that there’s any value in it for me. If it’s all about the company, and really they are just going through a process, why should I bother? 

    Love what you say about using surveys to enhance and deepen the customer conversations. If customers feel they have been really listened to, that their feedback means something to the business then this will help the relationship. Making it personal, saying thank you is, as you say, the key.  


  2. Gary S. Hart
    Gary S. Hart says:

    This is a very important topic Charlie and Eric that I hope the organizations who need to read this are paying attention. Long surveys filled questions that meaningless say to the customer, “We are clueless about you” widening the chasm, not closing the gap. 
    Finding questions that lead to a better customer experience in the surveys I sample is rare.  There seems to be a belief that surveys equal customer-centricity. Missing the target tells me there is a deeper problem than poor survey construction.  
    I like the idea of presenting four questions; much can be learned with four “good” questions. A few phone calls by a person with reasonable EI can have a greater impact with more accurate results. Surveys are becoming a new form of spam. 

  3. Ed Drozda
    Ed Drozda says:

    There is no question that these elements can have a positive impact upon the survey process. That said, in order to get a foot hold, those who survey must dig deeper and hone in on the intent of surveying in the first place. Once done, perhaps then they will appreciate the mutual value of this approach.

  4. ChristopherDowning
    ChristopherDowning says:

    A great way to test the water is the “Blind Audit” Just ask delegates at a course, or a workgroup, to give you feed back on any issue – but this time, unlike most company audits – especailly internal one – ask everyone to make comments in block capitals and leave it unsigned. You want unidentified comments and opionions without being able to identify the author!

    So many times in my career have I been asked to give feedback, foloowed by let is know your name, company ID, division and office loaction. In other words if you demonstrate what we will consider bad attitude – that means we think you disagree with us – we’ll nail your hide to the wall in some distant office far away. I remeber one guy giving what he felt was honest feedback at a conference. He was smakedd down by a senior manager and later was relieved of his twenty staff and sent on a special project where he had to commute 200 miles each way from his home. we got the message – nobody ever told management what it was really like on the front line again.

    Blind audits get around that problem – but it so powerful and honest, I’ve still had management ‘observers’ on workshops walk out because the group is ‘out of control’ and we are not ‘motivating’ but giving voice to ‘problems’ instaed of ‘selling’ the ‘opportunities’. In my experience you cannot get lasting improvement unless you nail the current reality and what the sales guys are going through every day. The Blind Audit absolutely gives voice to reality – and yes it can frighten management who believe leadership is all about ignoring daily exeriences.

    If you do this exercise well, I used to do it with ten post-it notes for each delegate, you then stick all the comments on a wall, then group them into main issues. The delegates ‘own’ the output and immediately feel the need for corrective action.

    This works great with clients and customers as well if you feel brave enough to deal with the truth of where you are with relationships and service quality. Although with clients the basics you are always tring to get to are – 1 Did our performanec meet or exceed yaour requirements? If not why not? – 2 Would you ‘buy’ from us again? If not why not? – 3 Would you recommend us to a colleague or friend? If not why not? Xerox ended up after many hears with this simple three box approach because they are really the basic questions you want answers to and open enough to get meaningful and actionable answers.

  5. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Thanks Gary, Ed, Chris, Sonja – I’m certainly hearing a common theme, one that Erich brought up himself. The survey “industry” needs to do a far better job of making meaningful connections with customers. If they do that, they’ll be rewarded with “real” data, as Christopher notes, rather than the “usual suspects” kind of data that gets served up absent real client focus, a la Sonja. 

    Otherwise, as Gary put it, surveys are just a new form of spam. 


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