Are your surveys worth your customers' time?

Are your surveys worth your customers' time?

If you don't want your surveys ignored, keep them short and take action on what customers tell you.

  • min read


Are your surveys worth your customers' time?

The following post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network.

My personal e-mail inbox currently holds requests for feedback from twelve different companies: a couple of hotels, two web-based retailers, a credit-card company, an investment management firm, etc. As a customer experience expert, I often advise companies on gathering and using customer feedback, so you might think I'd be interested in these surveys. But I've glanced at the ones cluttering my inbox, and I'm not even going to fill out most of them.

And I'm hardly the only customer who reacts that way. Survey response rates are a simple test of whether your post-event feedback mechanisms are healthy and giving you access to thoughtful customer feedback. Response rates below 40% in consumer businesses or 60% in commercial environments indicate a problem. And if your response rates aren't increasing, your customers are telling you that you don't respect their time.

Most customers have the same gut reaction I do when they see customer surveys flooding their inboxes, and the reasons behind it include:

They take too much time! If I knew for certain that every survey would be quick and easy, I might do it. But most of them ask for "a few minutes of your time," which is almost always an outright lie. They typically require 15 or even 20 minutes to complete—who has that kind of time to spare?

No follow-up action on specific complaints. I've filled out plenty of surveys in the past, but too often it's like dropping feedback into a black hole. If I believed that completing the survey would result in getting a specific problem fixed, I might actually do it. But at a hotel I stay in, they keep delivering the wrong newspaper, no matter how many times I let them know on the survey. Another hotel never does fix its noisy, leaky air conditioners, regardless of what I put on my survey.

No learning from the feedback. If I thought my time investment would help the employees or the company improve its service to me and other customers as a whole, I'd be more cooperative. But many times, it doesn't. Suppose the employees could actually hear what I have to say in a way that would help them learn? Suppose senior managers actually weighed my input (and that of other customers) and took appropriate action, even if they decided not to follow my advice exactly? If I truly believed all that was happening, I'd be glad to fill out a brief survey.

But some companies know how to get it right. There are some companies for whom I almost always complete surveys because they take an approach that's the exact opposite of the one I've been describing. If you want high quality feedback from your customers—the kind you can rely on for learning, action, and even investment decisions—the approach that these companies take is worth emulating:

Their surveys are always quick and short, usually only two or three questions. I'm not talking about two or three batteries of questions, each with ten sub-questions. I mean really short—respectful of my time.

They take direct action on the specific issues I raise. One of the hotels I visit regularly could never get me the right welcome snack, and I let them know about it. When I checked in the next time, the front desk clerk proudly told me she had personally checked to make sure the right snack was in my room. Wow! This hotel's systematic learning processes ensure that employees at every level hear all relevant feedback, often in the form of verbatim comments. Senior managers take that feedback into account in making decisions about process changes, new services, and other innovations.

My input makes a difference for other customers in the future. For example, Logitech, the computer peripherals manufacturer, always gets a response from me. There, every product has its own customer feedback score (a Net Promoter score in Logitech's case) based on quick, simple customer surveys. And the product faces a fast redesign if it doesn't perform well. When the company's much-heralded MX 5000 keyboard turned in a lower score than expected, managers quickly analyzed customer feedback to pinpoint the product's failings—and soon came out with a new model that solved the problems. Other companies might never know why their new product wasn't selling as well as they thought it would.

Experienced survey users know that an effective feedback system has to go well beyond just asking the right questions. It needs responses that are timely, reliable, and actionable. Following the three principles outlined here will help you get that kind of feedback.

As a customer, what are the other reasons you fill out a surveys—or don't?

This series of posts from Rob Markey highlights the ideas in a new book by Fred Reichheld and Rob, The Ultimate Question 2.0: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer-Driven World (HBR Press).


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