5 Tips for Customer Survey Optimization

Sign reading, "Ask more questions"
Google revamped its survey products to get marketers to ask more questions.

Jonathan Simcoe

Getting feedback from customers can be a key to understanding the pain points in the customer journey, improving products, or enhancing a user interface. When done properly, surveys can be instrumental in collecting actionable insights from customers that ultimately improve the customer experience. This article will look at some of the ways that brands can optimize their surveys to do just that.

Why Would Customers Participate in Surveys?

Customers provide feedback for various reasons, but generally, they do so following a particularly positive or negative experience — a moderate experience is not likely to elicit feedback of any type. According to SurveyMonkey research, 85% of customers polled indicated that they are likely to provide feedback if they’ve had a good experience, whereas 81% said that they would provide it if they’ve had a bad experience. On the other hand, less than half (48%) of customers that had what they characterized as a “normal experience” would provide feedback. Thus, both good and bad experiences provide optimum opportunities for customers to participate in surveys.

An example of a positive experience could be when a customer has received an item they ordered online. An email can be generated once the item has been confirmed as having been received, with a link to an online survey in the email. They could be asked to provide details about what made their experience positive, and if there was anything that could have been done to make it even better. Conversely, an example of a negative experience would be when a customer abandons a shopping cart after adding items to it. Again, an email could be sent to the customer asking them if they would take a short online survey that can then provide clues as to what went wrong in their shopping experience that made them abandon their shopping cart.

Forrest Morgeson is Director of Research at the American Customer Satisfaction Index, a national economic indicator that conducts annual surveys to measure customer satisfaction in over 400 companies across 47 industries. Morgeson said that customer engagement, as we know it, refers to the intensity of the connection between a customer and a brand they do business with. Online tools such as survey platforms have enabled brands to dramatically increase customers’ engagement with brands and their products. “It has resulted in more constant contact and interaction between the two, something that firms were in many cases unable to achieve before these technologies existed,” said Morgeson.

Related Article: Customer Journey Mapping: A How-To Guide

Understand the Goals and Objectives for Each Survey

Before an effective, optimized survey can be created, brands need to determine what it is exactly that they wish to find out with the survey. A survey that is being used to understand the level of customer satisfaction is going to be different than one with the goal of obtaining feedback on a new product, service, or web design. When brands have a good grasp on the goals and objectives of a particular survey, it allows them to better optimize their marketing strategy, which facilitates a more effective, efficient survey initiative.

Common objectives for customer surveys include many of the metrics and topics that are part of Voice of Customer (VoC) programs, including but not limited to:

  • Customer satisfaction
  • New product feedback
  • User interface redesign feedback
  • Website redesign
  • Customer effort
  • Brand loyalty
  • Brand advocacy
  • Loyalty program effectiveness
  • Customer pain points

By understanding the goals and objectives of the survey, brands are able to more precisely ask the most appropriate questions to the most applicable groups of customers.

Let AI Enable Smarter Surveys

According to Rasto Ivanic, co-founder and CEO at GroupSolver, a survey technologies company, the latest innovations are improving and optimizing surveys. Particularly, a combination of machine learning (ML), natural language processing (NLP), and crowdsourcing techniques have facilitated the ability for brands to utilize open-ended questions without burdening the customer by talking at them instead of with them, which creates a more conversational and less transactional survey experience.

The problem with using “canned” or pre-filled responses is that customers who check box after box of multiple-choice options often get burned out long before the survey is over, which results in them “straight-lining” answers (i.e., selecting the same option question after question), Ivanic explained. Additionally, these types of surveys can cause respondents to not entirely focus on each question, which reduces the depth of the resulting data.

Ivanic said that AI is able to create surveys that are both “smarter” and shorter. The AI enables customers to create responses in their own words, rather than just checking off pre-filled “suggested” responses. “One might think that this will make surveys more difficult on the back-end. However, AI can also enable the clustering of answers into themes, which improves the survey-taking experience as well,” he said.

Smaller, Micro-Surveys Can Enhance CX

When it comes to surveys, bigger isn’t always better, and can in fact cause customers to lose interest and cancel the survey. Mark Smith, president of customer journey analytics company, Kitewheel, told CMSWire that surveys have become the centerpiece to many brands’ customer satisfaction analytics strategies, with up to 90% of CX analytics data being survey responses that are part of a larger Voice of Customer (VoC) program. Smith said that brands are missing out by not using surveys as part of the customer experience itself.

“Brands can target customers with micro-surveys during crucial parts of the customer experience, giving the customer an opportunity to provide immediate feedback which, in turn, opens a quick and easy channel with the customer. Smart firms are using this to make their customer journeys and experiences richer and more intelligent,” suggested Smith.

For many brands, these shorter surveys provide opportunities to obtain feedback that customers may otherwise not provide if tasked with longer surveys. “In some cases, where the information being sought is really just an overview of performance with a group of customers, shorter surveys are both acceptable and even preferable. These shorter surveys have the advantage of being less burdensome to respondents,” said Morgeson. That said, shorter surveys are not always the optimum solution for brands looking for detailed information. “For companies looking to improve more complex, intensive customer experiences, longer surveys tapping deeper into these experiences are often necessary,” he said.

Consider Each Generation of Consumers Different

While it may not be the first thing to come to mind, there is a need, some say, to look at each generation differently, especially in regards to optimizing surveys for specific generations.

Chuck Underwood, one of the pioneers of generational study, author of America’s Generations In The Workplace, Marketplace, And Living Room, founder and principal of The Generational Imperative, Inc., said that generational research has shown that all of us form powerful core values during our so-called formative years, which roughly includes the first two decades of our lives, all of which have a significant influence upon consumers’ minute-by-minute decision-making.

These core values are burned into us through the teachings that we absorb from our elders — parents, teachers, religious leaders; and the times in which we pass through those formative years: war, depression, tech revolution, high divorce rate, social activism, pandemics, and other affective experiences. Although as we age we tend to evolve a bit, these core values remain largely intact and heavily affect us when we are making consumer decisions, career choices, and lifestyle preferences — for the rest of our lives, said Underwood. “Whenever the times or teachings, or both, change in a significant and widespread way in our nation, it means young kids coming of age during those different times will mold different core values and thus become our next generation.”

When brands are hoping to learn more about the expectations and needs of Millennials, for instance, the questions that are asked and the way they are presented will be different than they would be when researching Generation Z or Baby Boomers.

According to Underwood, generational research studies require that brands understand that they need to bracket customers by generation, rather than just their ages, and that it requires a different upfront design than traditional demographic studies. “It also requires the inclusion of known generational core values, which influence the questions and the probes; different questionnaires and discussion guides for both quantitative and qualitative research,” he said. Once the survey results have been obtained, “a moderator who is knowledgeable in generational dynamics is necessary so they can identify respondent comments that should be probed and discussed more deeply.”

For Improved CX, Avoid These Common Mistakes

Matt Robbins, VP of research and insights at LEWIS, shared some common mistakes that brands make when they are interested in using surveys to improve the customer experience. Brands are often focused too narrowly on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that don’t really matter. The Net Promoter Score (NPS) is an example of just such a metric. It’s not that the NPS is useless, but rather that it doesn’t tell you much about the customer’s experience with the brand. “Best case, those questions will help you understand the customer’s last experience with the brand and worst case, you are only measuring a respondent’s propensity to select the middle points of scale questions,” Robbins said. “Including questions that delve into the reasons why customers answered questions the way they did are much more valuable to a brand than simply giving them a scale-based rating.”

Another issue that brands fall prey to is not when they ask too many questions, but rather when they ask too few. Again using the NPS metric as an example, to be useful it may require brands to ask the standardized NPS question, along with several others. “We normally ask 5 total questions of respondents; the standardized NPS question, three open-ended questions about their rating based on if they are a detractor, passive or promoter and a final question of all respondents that simply asks what the brand can do to ensure they will continue to be a customer in the future,” explained Robbins. “The NPS may be a fine proxy for the likelihood to purchase in the future, but those open-ended questions help facilitate the creation of strategies to ensure the brand keeps customers engaged.” 

Also problematic, is when brands don’t collect enough demographic data from customers. It’s not so much that brands aren’t asking enough demographic questions, but rather they aren’t asking the right questions. “Not having the right demographic questions can make results from customer surveys less actionable. Focus on the demographics most important to the brand, and don’t worry about the ones that wouldn’t be used to help segment a marketing campaign (i.e. if your company wouldn’t market to men or women differently, don’t ask that question),” said Robbins.

Longer, more complex research engagements often require brands to provide customers with incentives that compensate them for their time. Brands must also recognize that entering customers into sweepstakes or drawings for prizes is not going to be considered suitable. “Research participants should be given immediate financial incentives like gift cards, coupons, or access to preferred pricing for products/services,” said Robbins. “If a marketer is struggling to find customers to participate in their research, it’s almost always because the incentives are lacking.”

Finally, brands should not waste the opportunity that the customer has provided them with. They need to follow up after the survey by sending a follow-up message that lets the customer know how valuable their feedback is. “This is a really simple technique that very few brands actually do. Customers that are willing to participate in research are typically more engaged with your brand and are interested in knowing if their feedback had an impact. Sending a follow-up message that states, ‘This is what we heard’ and ‘This is what we are going to do to address it’ shows that the brand takes customer feedback seriously, and will increase the likelihood that those same customers will participate in future surveys,” said Robbins.

Final Thoughts

Customers today are willing to provide feedback, especially if they have a very good or a very bad experience with a brand. Brands should understand the objectives and goals they wish to achieve through each specific survey, use AI to enable smarter surveys, create smaller, “micro” surveys, and learn to target specific generations through generational research. In doing so, the brand will be able to obtain actionable insights that can be used to craft an exceptional customer experience.

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