Are We Cramming Surveys Down Peoples’ Throats?

Yesterday, I wrote about the problems free online survey tools can cause if a survey is not well-constructed and its purpose isn’t properly thought out. Today, I want to spend time talking about another issue, one that is directly influenced by the availability of several online survey tools, both free and full-price: the overabundance of surveys. Back in the day, I used to look forward to those mail surveys that used to come in the mail once and a while, so that I could open them up and take the dollar that came with them and throw the surveys into the trash (I was in high school then)! Surveys were so few and far between that they were practically a welcome interruption in our lives then.

Fast-forward twenty years. Email, social media, and the Web have transformed everything. Communication is a lot faster. Competition for customers in almost every industry is cutthroat. Angry customers will not hesitate to tweet or blog their dissatisfaction to anyone who will read, retweet, or forward their rants. People have so many choices for entertainment, where and on what to spend their money, and who to buy from.

Businesses need to stay relevant to their customers and need constant feedback. Quite often, the best way to do it is the survey. When you buy a new car, the dealer sends you a survey. Have lunch at Panera? Your receipt will have a website you can visit to take a survey. Stay at a hotel? Survey. Attend a seminar? There’s an evaluation form at the end of the session. Welcome to survey Hell.

We are bombarded with surveys everywhere. I used to be on a consumer panel to take surveys and earn reward points. After two months, I stopped answering because I was getting three of them a week! When you have a business to run, a life to live, and other responsibilities, you just can’t take every survey. After a while, these surveys get complicated and involved. At 9:00 pm, as I struggle to stay awake, I don’t want to take a survey that makes me think!

Let’s consider the various problems involved with survey overuse. Among them:

Reduced response rates

Too many surveys reduce their value. If you get one survey every two weeks, you might complete most, if not all of them. If you get a survey every two days, you’re probably not going to complete even half. There’s just not time. Also, because free online tools have enabled many amateurs to launch a survey, many of these amateur survey “professionals” construct questionnaires with vague, misleading, loaded, or double-barreled questions. Some questions have too many choices. These surveys tend to frustrate respondents, who may choose not to participate. Furthermore, amateurs may pay no attention to the relevant population, and send the survey to anybody, and only those with an interest will respond (and their responses will be biased).

Biased or bogus responses

Imagine getting a survey that wasn’t relevant to you. You might either not respond to it, or you may jokingly fill it out and send it back. Either way, the result is useless to the one conducting the survey. Or, imagine getting a survey whose questions are described as above. If you do respond, your responses won’t be truthful. Or, if the survey is complicated, requiring you to rank several items, or choose from a long list, you may be tempted to answer just the top choices, or pick your choices randomly or haphazardly. You might be compelled to do the same if you just get tons of surveys, or surveys that pay you for taking them.

Another way bias rears its head is in customer satisfaction. When I bought my car four years ago, the dealer told me I would be receiving a survey. He asked me to give him 100%, because his performance evaluation depended on the number of buyers who gave him 100% satisfaction. Another time, I was eating in a Corner Bakery Café in downtown Chicago, when an employee came up to me and said that if I could fill out a customer satisfaction form favorable to the store, there would be a free pastry in it for me. Seeing any problems here?

Reduced Brand Image

Survey abuse can even hurt your company’s brand image. Imagine if different departments send out their own surveys. What if marketing sends out a customer satisfaction survey, while the product development department sends out a survey of its own? Without coordination between the two departments, they could be surveying many of the same people with many of the same questions. As the respondent, you see only the company sending you the surveys, not the individual departments. Hence, you view the company as inefficient and “clumsy,” so you begin to question its brand, service, and quality.

What to do?

There are several ways we can remedy the abuse of surveys. The most immediate thing to remember is that surveys are not the “be-all and end-all.” There are many different opportunities to collect feedback from customers. Businesses need to be nimble, but not be superfast. Remember, haste makes waste. Here are some suggestions:

Save surveys for major projects and initiatives; use other immediate forms of feedback

It’s OK to have a very brief survey to give to customers at the point of service to understand their satisfaction. But nine times out of ten, you should save your surveys for obtaining really important information: identifying the optimal price to charge, determining the size of a market, understanding public opinion, identifying which marketing messages work best, or conducting surveys if and only if there is no other good way to get key information. Instead, try to generate feedback from less formal channels. A hotel might train its service desk employees and concierges to ask guests at various touchpoints about how their stay is going; ask what services or amenities they could use; and ask what can be done to make the remainder of the stay even more enjoyable. The employees can note the responses privately, and feed them into a client database, enhancing marketing messages and service level treatment for future stays.

Don’t tie customer satisfaction to employee incentives

Customer satisfaction is important, but if you tie employee compensation to increasing satisfaction, you’re likely to get scenarios like those I faced with the car dealer and the café. Customers can say in their survey that they were satisfied and that they would return, but then never do so. Instead, base employee compensation on other customer service factors that will truly increase satisfaction.

Try other ways to engage customers

Instead of having seminar attendees fill out an evaluation form, instead, a moderator could take the last 10 minutes to solicit open, honest feedback from the audience to see what they liked, didn’t like, and what could be done better. It’s one thing for people to write things down privately, but another to give thoughts publicly. There is strength in numbers, and people may be inclined to give more honest feedback, for better or worse, collectively. Other businesses might encourage their customers to talk about their experiences on the company blog, Twitter, or Facebook.

In summary, surveys are not the only means of obtaining insights. A good combination of open-customer communication, social media, secondary research, and customer service delivery, along with carefully thought out study objectives can prove highly invaluable. If you see response rates dropping steadily from survey to survey, it probably means you are surveying too much!

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