It's the one thing every business owner wants to know—"What are my customers thinking?" Yet few ever consider going straight to customers to ask specific questions related to their experience, even though it can yield valuable and sometimes surprising insights. A well-designed survey can reveal what your customers like about your product or service and, perhaps more importantly, what they don’t. It can give you a firmer idea of how your business is perceived in the community. And it can strengthen the loyalty of customers to your brand because the survey actively seeks their feedback on critical issues.
As with other things that look simple on the surface, surveys require careful thought and preparation in order to deliver meaningful results in an efficient way. We checked in with three experts to get their best advice for gathering intelligence from your most prized asset—your customers.
Ask relevant questions
Before launching a survey, you should be clear about the kind of information you're looking for. "It's important to identify the specific focus, so that once you get to the point of creating the survey, you're on track," says Linda Pophal, owner and CEO of Strategic Communications, a Wisconsin-based company that helps organizations sharpen their internal and external communications programs.
Instead of wasting a customer's valuable time with questions that your business already has the data on—such as when they made their last purchase—Pophal suggests drilling down for information you might not have easy access to. "The questions might relate to how [your business] is perceived compared to other competitors in the area," she explains. "Or possibly [asking for] their input on other kinds of products or services that might be valued by your customers—any questions that can help you make good business decisions on a wide range of issues."
For example, one of Pophal's healthcare clients wanted to find out what its audience thought about various attributes of its brand, in anticipation of a new competitor coming into the area. Pophal put together a survey with 10 to 15 attributes and asked audience members to rate them on a scale of 0 to 10. After analyzing the results, Pophal was able to identify two things that were especially relevant to her client: "Areas where they scored lower that they would need to work on, and areas where they were favorably perceived that they might be able to more aggressively promote or communicate in their communications material," she says. "It was a pretty basic, simple survey, but we got a sense of where my client and the competition might be positioned in the minds of their potential audience."
Pophal favors close-ended questions—such as multiple-choice questions that offer a limited number of responses—over open-ended questions that can't be answered with a simple yes or no, because of the ease and efficiency in analyzing the responses. "Once you develop the survey, you should sit down with a handful of people and pre-test it," she adds. "Have them go through it with you and indicate if there is anything they don't understand very well, then make the changes and send it out."
Even "simple" surveys need to be carefully thought out in order to generate a meaningful response. "You've got to make sure it's not too onerous for people to complete," says Jon Picoult, founder and principal of Watermark Consulting, a customer experience consultancy, based in Connecticut. "In the body of your invitation, give people a sense of how long it's going to take to complete, so they don't wonder when it's going to end."
Picoult often uses surveys with only five questions and meticulously crafts them to get information that the business can actually do something with. "A common weakness in surveys is when people ask what are called double-barreled questions," Picoult explains, such as: "How do you feel about the price and convenience of our service?"
"Imagine if people respond by saying that they think it's awful," Picoult continues. "What are you going to do with that? You don't know if they're talking about the price or the convenience, and then you've wasted the whole survey because you have no actionable information."
The subject line of an email survey can also affect the willingness of a participant to open and complete it. A generic line such as "Customer Survey" sounds bland and tedious, whereas "Your Opinion Counts" is more personal and engaging.
Although Picoult is a strong proponent of using surveys, he emphasizes that they are just one tool for collecting customer information. A second way is to ask your front-line employees about what delights and frustrates your customers. "Another way to complement surveys is to actually observe your customers while they research, buy, and use your product," Picoult says. "Watching your customers in their natural habitat is a powerful way to get at those ideas that they would never think to share on a survey."
Reach out often
At VerticalResponse, an award-winning company in San Francisco that provides self-service marketing solutions for small businesses, they practice what they preach to their clients and survey their own customers quarterly. If the survey identifies a problem or an area where customer satisfaction isn't high, VerticalResponse addresses the problem immediately—and then turns it into a positive self-promotion opportunity.
"I think the most important thing about a survey is the outreach after the survey," says Janine Popick, CEO and founder of VerticalResponse. "We tell all of those customers who had a problem with us that we heard them and fixed it. We actually do call campaigns and email outreach, and get a really good response from it."
Like Picoult, Popick also believes in focused, logical surveys that respect the survey taker's time. A survey sent by email with a subject line that says "Take This Quick Survey" but which turns out to be 20 questions long isn't likely to receive a warm welcome. However, exceptions exist.
"If you're going to give away an iPad for a 40-question survey, that's fine," Popick says. "We've done surveys where we've given away the opportunity to win something substantial. Other times we've given a survey and just said, 'Hey—please take a couple of minutes of your time to help us better our product.' It depends on the survey. You just want to make them feel good about using their time to take it."
Small business owners should survey their customer at least two to four times a year about something specific, Popick says. "If it's a [brick-and-mortar] store, then you could ask about ways to improve your service or about how your employees are treating them or even whether they like the colors of your walls," she adds. "You should want to know something about how your customers are feeling about your business on a regular basis."
It's hard to estimate the cost of having an outside company conduct a survey for you. There are multiple variables involved, and a market research firm might conclude that another methodology is better suited to meet your objectives. In addition to the survey services offered by our experts, the following customer survey resources are also worth checking out: