Customer Surveys -The Good, Bad, and the Ugly


I am thrilled that the vast majority of organizations have started to realize that it is important to get feedback from their customers. Unfortunately, the manner in which many companies have executed on this critical area is falling short of what they could be doing. In this article, I would like to discuss some of the common mistakes made in conducting customer surveys and then lay out how a complete customer feedback program should be organized.

Have you been asked to do this?

Have you ever been asked to complete a survey from a company with which you have done business, but it is make clear to you that the only “acceptable” response is the best possible score? To take that one step further, I once had a car dealership inform me that if I brought back a completed survey, they would give me a free oil change. Do you think they would really submit one that was not what they wanted? Do they really want my feedback or are they simply interested in how they appear up their corporate ladder?

Unfortunately, many companies, and car manufacturers are among the worst, having created a system that uses a single score to reward or punish their dealerships. This then allows them to brag about being a “Five Star” dealership. Other organizations use survey scores to set a bonus plan for their employees. Although I am all for performance-based compensation plans, we must be careful with the message communicated to your employees and customers. Is it, “We really want your feedback so we can better meet your needs” or is it “Give me a good rating or I will get in trouble?”

Customers Surveys should exist for one reason: To open up a communication channel between you and your customers!

When surveying your customers, do they get the impression that you want their honest feedback, even if it is constructive and not artificially loaded with the top ratings?

Net Promoter Scores: Use Caution

Let me address another aspect of surveys that has become very popular in the last few years. It is called the “Net Promoter Score”, or NPS. The NPS concept attempts to separate your customers into two groups: those who are your critics and those who are your fans. But, the tools themselves and the manner in which they are commonly implemented can be flawed.

One of my challenges with a Net Promoter Score survey is that there are too many options for a customer to select. They commonly use a ten-point scale which makes it nearly impossible to obtain an accurate reading of customer sentiment. If you can’t articulate the difference between a 6 and a 7 or a 3 and a 4, then you have too many choices. This leaves it up to interpretation and even the current mood of a customer when they are making their selection. The NPS tool attempts to get around this by grouping responses into categories, so it can still provide useful data. But I prefer a set of options where you clearly define what each choice signifies, usually using a four-point scale with each point defined by a key word.

The biggest challenge with the NPS survey tool involves the implementation of the process. Many times, the customer survey contains only one question, and the total focus is on this number. I have even heard of organizations who share survey results throughout their company by sharing only that single number.

NPS based surveys can still be used, but I don’t recommend this being the only question on your survey. This question should only be one part of a well-designed survey.

Survey Best Practices

Now, let’s discuss how you can build a feedback program that truly drives improvements in your organization.

The following are the key elements of a well-designed customer survey:

  • There should be two sections to a survey: 1) questions where feedback is provided in the form of a rating and 2) a place to provide comments or additional feedback, both positive and constructive. I feel that 50% of the value of a survey comes from the scores and 50% from the comments.

  • Keep it short! If your customer opens your survey and it scrolls off the screen to a second page, you are not very likely to get a good response rate. For transaction-based feedback, customers should be able to complete the survey in under two minutes. Some may want to try to gather feedback on dozens of topics, but keep in mind that feedback from a higher number of customers on a subset of questions is more beneficial than a 1% or 2% response rate on a longer survey.

  • Provide a place where customers can optionally provide their contact information if they desire to have someone reach out for additional dialog or if a response is warranted.

The survey discussed above is what I call a “transaction” survey and it is triggered when a customer completes a purchase of your product or service. This is one part of a complete customer feedback program. If you are serious about hearing from your customers and doing something with the feedback, I recommend the following four step program.

  1. Transaction Surveys. This is the most frequent version of customer surveys. The question often comes up: How often should we survey our frequent customers? In general, I am in favor of providing the opportunity for a customer to provide feedback more frequently, but it is acceptable to limit the frequency of a survey to the same individual to only once a month or quarter. This is only acceptable if you have other methods for customers to reach out to you and provide feedback in between surveys.

  2. Annual Surveys. These surveys are typically only sent to your most important customers and can be longer than a transaction survey. The intent is to allow your customers to provide direction for your product and service development to ensure you are meeting their needs for the coming year. Certainly, they are meant to retain your key customers.

  3. Executive Surveys. This aspect of a complete feedback program is rarely done, but can provide significant benefits if performed properly. To accomplish this, divide your top tier of customers among your senior leadership team members. Each leader should then reach out to their assigned customer and introduce themselves and ask for their feedback. Some leaders are more comfortable with this type of interaction, but all leaders should be able to engage in conversation with your customers. To help them, you could provide a list of suggested questions and topics, but try to avoid sounding scripted. Your customers will generally be impressed that someone of your level took the time to call them and ask for their thoughts on your product or service. The feedback should be summarized using a simple tool or added to an area in your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.

  4. Informal Feedback. Your employees are your eyes and ears. Are they empowered to listen to your customers and then relay the gathered feedback to the appropriate person in your organization? How many times have you attempted to provide feedback to an employee at a company you are working with or purchasing from only to hear them say: “It would be best if you would fill out a comment card. They don’t listen to us.” You have just run into a disengaged employee who is just punching the clock.

In each of these four components to a feedback program, the common aspect is that you must be prepared to respond to the feedback gathered! I tell my clients that if you don’t have a process in place to do something with the survey responses, then don’t ask for the feedback. The worst thing you can do is ask for feedback, get actionable comments, and do nothing.

Responses to customer feedback can come in two formats:

  • Immediate Response. For many of my clients, we have built a communication tool within their CRM that immediately notified key team members when we receive scores on an individual question or the overall average score that falls below our desired standard. Comments should also be read within hours of the survey being completed to identify if action is required.

  • Trend Analysis. After you have been collecting feedback using a consistent set of questions for a good length of time, you can start watching for trends in each measured area. You can then use that data to drive changes and monitor how the change affects your scores. This can be reported in the form of a monthly scorecard that is shared within your company.

Finally, it is important that you share survey feedback with the team members and departments that are involved with the customer or that produce your product. Another common error I see in customer feedback programs is the tendency to summarize the data in the form of a monthly or quarterly report that focuses on only the scores. Feedback that warrants a response to a customer or can be used to improve your product or service should be shared in as close to real time as possible. Yes, filters can be applied when broadly sharing data to ensure it is constructive and not a personal attack on any of your employees.

Hopefully, you have a program similar to what has been discussed above. Customer feedback is critical for any organization to thrive and grow. If you are not listening to your customers, I can guarantee someone else is!

David Reed is a CCNG member and Customer Service and Process Training Expert. 

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