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How to create a customer survey that really works

Updated: Jul 8


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Your customers constantly tell you things about themselves and about your business.


When they interact with anyone in your team, customers give away valuable pieces of information, whether they mean to or not.


In general, not much effort goes into capturing that information as it's being delivered.


That's because during those interactions, the focus is on completing a transaction, answering a question, resolving a problem or dealing with some other issue that comes up in the ordinary course of doing business.


What's also true is that any business that operates in isolation of what its customers think and how they behave is skating on very thin ice.


A common characteristic of great businesses is that they're always looking for ways to improve their customer experience. One proven method they use is applying a continuous listening strategy by seeking customer feedback.


One element of that strategy is the customer survey.


How good is your business at getting feedback from your customers? Do you actively seek out their opinions?


If not, there's no time like the present to make a start.


All customer surveys are not created equal...


Executed well, a customer survey can provide your business with important information about customer behaviour and attitudes - things that generally can't be extracted from generic customer data. If not executed so well, there's a real danger the whole exercise will be a giant waste of time and effort.


Given the work involved, especially since a survey involves communicating directly with customers, there's a fair incentive to get it right. But doing so can be challenging.


Also...


Regardless of any other objective you have for your survey, you need to be clear on whether you want data on customer satisfaction or customer engagement.


And yes, there most definitely is a difference.


Customer satisfaction is about you and your business being known for doing what you promise you'll do, doing it on time and doing it well.


On the other hand, customer engagement is all about what makes customers loyal to your business. Engaged customers have an emotional bond with your business (behavioural economics has long ago disproven the "rational consumer" theory) which makes them likely to support you through good times and bad.


Focusing your customer survey on engagement is likely to yield more valuable information about why customers continue to deal with you and be inclined to recommend you to others.


What makes for a successful customer survey?


A great customer survey - one worth the effort - isn't simply a matter of dreaming up a bunch of questions and sending them out to your entire customer base in the hope they'll provide some useful feedback.



google search customer survey template


As you can see, a Google search will deliver plenty of template surveys you could use in your business. But the question is whether you should use them. The temptation might be to take one such template, adapt it slightly for your use and get cracking.


It's probably no surprise that this isn't what we'd recommend you do.


This is also an excellent opportunity to affirm your business purpose with customers.


Given that purpose is a clear driver of customer engagement, survey time is the perfect time to highlight why you exist beyond making money.


Here are some tips on how to get the most from your customer surveys...


1. What's the objective?


Before you do anything else, take a deep breath and identify why you're doing this.


blackboard I want to learn more about




What, exactly, do you want to achieve?






There's a range of reasons you might want to tap into the collective wisdom of your customer base. It might be to:


  • gather opinions about service quality;

  • get feedback on a new product or service you might be considering;

  • understand what customers think you're doing well or not so well; or

  • learn more about why your returning customers keep coming back.


There's no limit (apart from your imagination) to the type of information you might want to gather from your survey. Being clear on your objective means you can better target the appropriate audience.


For example, if you want opinions about a new product or service you're thinking about launching, you'll get more informed feedback from repeat customers. They're the ones who are more likely to be engaged with what you deliver right now (they keep coming back, after all) and as a result, have something valuable to tell you.


Clarity of intent is paramount.


It's the basis for deciding on the right questions, how to ask them and who to ask.


2. Leave nothing open to interpretation


The best customer surveys leave nothing to chance.


First, when distributing the survey to your target customers, include a note that tells them specifically why you're running it and why you're asking them to be involved.


They're more likely to participate when they understand these things.


Let's be clear: telling them something like "we value your feedback" won't cut it. Instead, tell them why you value their feedback. For example, "your feedback will help us improve our product line/service offer/customer experience..." - something that gives the whole exercise a point in their minds.


Second, ask great questions that clearly relate to the objective you've communicated. Keep the following in mind:


  • State questions clearly - responses become less reliable (and therefore less useful) when you give respondents room to start making up their own minds about what you're asking them;

  • Short, direct questions are better than longer ones - it makes the survey easier to complete and further reduces the likelihood of misinterpretation;

  • Keep the overall length of the survey as short as you can - ten to twelve well-targeted questions should get the result you need (again, as long as you've focused on your objective) and make it quicker for people to complete;

  • Keep free text responses to a minimum - there's mixed opinion on this, but we reckon more useful outcomes are achieved if responses are scale-based and/or multiple-choice (with one or two exceptions mentioned below). You'll need to put some extra effort into crafting possible responses for multiple-choice questions, but you'll get a payback in terms of ease of analysis and quality of information; and

  • Make sure each question addresses only one issue at a time - for example, consider this question: "Does the product you purchased meet your needs and represent value for money?" This is two questions in one.


Put simply, the ideal customer survey is quick and easy to complete (and return) and where questions make sense in the context of your stated objective.


3. You want it "warts and all"...


Well, you might not want it that way, but it's certainly how you need it...



blackboard feedback and speech bubbles


Allowing your customers to tell it exactly how they see things is vital. Feedback is a valuable gift, and we'd argue the most valuable of all is that which identifies where things can be improved.





Once you create what you believe to be the ideal survey for your needs, review it several times to make sure it's as objective as possible and not skewed to produce positive outcomes. You won't mean to do it of course, but sometimes the subconscious kicks in and questions end up framed in a way that reduces the likelihood of negative feedback.


Engaging a third party to work with you can bring a more balanced approach - of that, there's little reasonable doubt.


4. Anonymous or not?


For the most part, we recommend allowing respondents to decide.


Anonymity makes some people more inclined to be a little more forthright in providing those suggestions for improvement that are so important.


person with question mark hiding face

On the other hand, when customers choose to identify themselves, it allows you to personally follow up on issues that are bothering them. Contacting people who make suggestions for improvement to thank them and discuss their suggestion in detail does absolute wonders for customer relations.



Your customers need to feel in control of the process

and comfortable participating.


Leaving the question of anonymity to them will help with that.


5. How to maximise response rates


We've already covered a couple of points that will help here - being clear about why you're asking for opinions, keeping the survey short and allowing respondents to decide whether or not to identify themselves are all important in encouraging responses.


Consider the following as well:


  • Incentives - can certainly encourage people to participate. They don't need to be earth-shatteringly fancy or expensive...just going in a draw to win a couple of movie tickets can help;

  • Timeframes - remember to provide a deadline for responses. And if response rates remain unsatisfactorily low as the deadline approaches, send a reminder. People have a lot of "stuff" on their minds these days...

  • Offer a summary of results - people love to compare themselves to others (in almost everything). Offering an overview of survey results allows them to see how their views sit with those of others. It's a more potent driver of human behaviour than you might think.


Remember though, simplicity and relevance are your best friends in making your customer survey a success.


Before we go...


There are two more things we need to mention.


First, every customer survey should include one or both of the following questions:


  • "What's the one thing we could do to improve your customer experience?"; and,

  • "Is there anything else you'd like us to know?"


These are arguably the most valuable questions you can ask any customer because nearly everyone will have something to say. And they're the clear exceptions to the earlier recommendation about sticking with scale-based and/or multiple choice question formats.


Second, don't let your survey become an exercise in futility. Act on the information you collect.


Customer feedback is gold and should be treated as the precious commodity it is.


Third, as we suggested earlier, use the survey as an opportunity to reaffirm your business purpose. Mention it when you tell customers why you're surveying them. Reference it in a question or two in the survey itself if you can. Use it as the anchor for follow-up action, including any summary of results you might send to respondents.


Need some help?


We've already pointed out the benefits of applying some third-party independence to your customer survey process. It'll help you:


  • Make the process (and the survey itself) truly objective;

  • Craft the right questions;

  • Identify the right customers to involve given your objectives; and

  • Gather results and collate feedback.


Above all, it'll save you a substantial amount of the time involved in making the survey happen.


We'd welcome the opportunity to discuss your needs with you and invite you to contact us to arrange a meeting - face-to-face or virtual.


How strong is purpose in your business?


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If you're keen for immediate feedback on the strength of purpose in your business, please follow the link to our "Strength of Purpose Health Check".




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