How to survey customers and obtain useful data

The art of how to survey customers is valuable for any business. In this guide to ensuring accurate information and the best response rate with any customer survey we’ll explain how to survey customers, when to survey customers, what questions to ask customers and much more.
It’s becoming increasingly vital for businesses to gain as much information as possible about the satisfaction of their customers, as well as their customers’ opinions and thoughts on products and services. As competition increases, businesses must differentiate themselves more and more, and the only way to do that is to deliver the best possible product or service, and the ideal customer experience.

How do you gauge your progress? How do you gain access to that information in the first place? The answer to both questions is to use customer surveys. Of course, that may leave you wondering how to survey customers, which can be much more difficult to accomplish than you might think.

Why Should You Survey Customers?

Should You Worry About Customer Surveys? Will spending time learning how to survey customers be helpful? Simply put, if you’re not surveying your audience, you’re missing out on vital information that is crucial to the success of your business.

Surveys can be introduced at many different points in the customer experience, and they can be used to gather information on any number of topics. They’re not just about customer satisfaction, although that is one of the most important reasons to use them. You can also utilize customer surveys to learn more about how well your business stands out in the minds of consumers, about the preferences of your target audience, about how your customers perceive your products or services on their own and in comparison with competitors, and a great deal more.

You’ll find that surveying your customers allows you to determine what actions are working and which are not. They also allow you to identify potentially unwanted or unexpected consequences of business decisions or actions and help you make more informed choices in terms of product and service offerings.

In short, you need answers to an incredible range of questions, and most of those answers lie with your customers. You just need a way to gain access to that information.

When to Use Customer Surveys

Learning how to survey customers is one of the most crucial lessons to master. Too many companies leave surveys for the end of the line, often sending them out long after the customer experience is over, and when the experience is no longer fresh in their customers’ minds. While there is no hard and fast rule that dictates the use of all surveys, some of the more beneficial times to use surveys include the following:

After a Specified Period of Use or Time: Let’s say that your customer purchases a push mower from you. There’s little point in providing a product-specific survey until they have had a chance to use it. So, you would want to wait a predefined amount of time after the purchase to survey them about their thoughts on the mower.

Immediately After a Customer Experience: Let’s use the same push mower purchase example as above. While you would not want to survey them about their experience with the mower until they had a chance to use it, you would want to learn about their purchase experience with your company immediately.

After Customer Service Was Provided: One of the most important uses for customer surveys is to pinpoint where you can make service improvements. So, it follows that surveying your customers after they contacted customer support or otherwise used customer service would be important.

Other times when to apply the surveys

After Changes: Businesses need to know why their customers are making changes – perhaps they downgraded their cable package with your company, or maybe they upgraded their Internet package with your firm. Surveying after such a change can give you access to vital information that allows you to improve your service or product offerings and even better target your marketing efforts.

As Needed/Periodically: It’s important that you keep a finger on the pulse of your business, and that means staying connected to your customers. Periodically surveying them about their ongoing satisfaction, their purchase or usage habits, the visibility of your marketing materials and more can do that for you. Here are some questions you should be asking every customer as a way to keep motivated.

These are by far not the only times to use customer surveys. They are just some of the most common usage scenarios. However, remember that you need to limit these touchpoints. While surveys can provide you with incredibly valuable information, sending out too many surveys to the same customers can backfire. They’ll become exhausted, and will stop completing them, and then your response rate tanks.


How to Survey Customers

Learning how to survey customers will require that you master several things, including your preferred delivery method. Once, hardcopy surveys were the rule, in which a customer would fill out a physical survey form and then deliver it by hand, or send it back by mail. That’s not the case today. Digital technology has enabled instantaneous delivery of customer surveys, but you need to know the differences between the various platforms, as well as the role of social networks in this process. 

How to Survey Customers via Social Media: We’ll talk about social media first, as it’s the least familiar to most people. Specifically, we’re talking about Facebook, which provides business page owners and even group moderators with the ability to create surveys. You can and should make use of these to target your wider audience. Note that you cannot use Facebook to target individual customers, though. So, this is more about gaining access to a wide range of perspectives from across your customer pool, rather than homing in on a single person’s opinions, thoughts or experience.

One of the most important considerations here is brevity. You need to keep social media surveys as short as possible – much more so than any other type. Often, these work best with a single multiple-choice question and four to five possible answers. Remember that social media users have much shorter attention spans, so creating long surveys will ultimately backfire.

How to Survey Customers via Platforms

How to Survey Customers via Platforms: You’ll discover an incredibly wide range of survey platforms out there, from SurveyMonkey to Zendesk, and tons of others in between. There is no single solution that will work perfectly for everyone’s needs, though. When comparing your delivery methods, look at each platform you’re considering based on factors including the following:

  • Cost
  • Delivery methods (email, website page creation, etc.)
  • Information delivery to you (collated reports, sorted responses, etc.)
  • Ability to drill down into customer information
  • Company reputation
  • Additional customer communication methods (email marketing, newsletter, etc.)
  • Platform response rate averages
  • Ease of reopening cases, or matching customer survey responses to customers in your CRM system

How Should You Formulate Questions?

An important part of successfully learning how to survey customers is learning how to formulate the questions that you ask. This doesn’t necessarily dictate the types of information you can access, but it does determine how you structure questions. Again, there are no rules set in stone, but there are best practices that should be followed when creating those questions.

Avoid Leading Questions: It can be tempting to structure leading questions, as they line up with your own personal or professional bias. However, leading questions skew the answers you receive, meaning that the data you obtain from the survey could be inaccurate. So, rather than asking what it was that made a customer’s experience positive, ask what they thought of the overall experience. Rather than asking what a customer loves about your product, as what they think of it overall.

Use Appropriate Responses

Use Appropriate Responses: If you’re going to use multiple-choice questions in your survey, make sure that you’re using appropriate responses. For instance, if you were asking a question about how a customer felt about your product, including “It’s the best!” is probably inappropriate. Chances are good that even if your product is highly rated, it’s not the best, and chances are good that your customers don’t really feel that it’s the best thing ever, either. Provide only appropriate responses to multiple-choice questions to ensure the accuracy of the information you receive.

Easily Answered Questions: Make sure that your questions can be easily answered in just a few words. For instance, if you’re asking about a particular product and want to know if the customer used a specific feature, ask if they used that feature. Provide areas for customers to expand their answers if they want to, but make these optional. The easier your questions are to answer, the more likely a customer will be to respond in the first place.

Use Questions That Have Value

Use Questions That Have Value: Make sure that you’re only using questions that have value for both you and your customer. If the answer to a question will not change anything, then why ask it in the first place? For instance, if a customer’s answer to a question about the quality of customer service is not going to change the way that customer service is provided, then there is no point in asking it. Focus on questions that will lead to real results.

Make Sure It’s Relevant: it’s vital that you keep the questions on your survey relevant to the customer’s experience. For instance, if a customer bought a product from you, decided they did not want it and returned it to the store for a refund, asking about whether the customer service representative was able to help them solve their problem is irrelevant. They didn’t have a problem. They simply decided the product was not right for them.

Context Matters: All surveys should be tailored to the context of the interaction, as well as the interaction means in question. Our previous discussion on using surveys in social media is a great example of this, but there are many others. For instance, if a customer used the live chat function on your company’s website to ask a question for clarification purposes only, there’s a very, very limited window in which to survey them about their experience with that chat session. It might actually be better to send a survey to their email in this case, and let them get on with their day.


Incentives Motivate Customers

Incentives Motivate Customers: While some customers are motivated by altruistic reasons, most require something more to complete a survey. After all, you’re asking them to part with time in their lives that they will never recoup. What’s the incentive to do that? Make the incentive match the survey in terms of value to survey length ratio (the longer the survey, the more valuable the incentive).

Customization Makes a Difference

Customization Makes a Difference: The days of mass surveying customers are long gone, and if you think that’s the best route to go, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Today’s consumers expect to be the focus of your efforts and will respond much better to customized surveys that reflect their own personal experience with your company. Generic surveys are likely to be ignored, but customized surveys have a much higher chance of being completed.

Here’s a good article on create a customer survey.

What to Do with the Information Gleaned

Now that you’ve learned how to survey customers, you need to know what to do with the information you gleaned. The answer to this question is “whatever you need”. That information can be used to improve customer service, to change product styles, designs, and quality, or for anything else. The use of the information should be tied directly to the purpose of surveying your customers, though. Focus on the themes that emerged from your surveys, and use that information to home in on areas where your customers are dissatisfied, or where they feel that quality, attention or care might be lacking.

Learning how to survey customers shows that you care about what they think, but the real proof is acting on the information they provide you.

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Franco Breciano

Tech entrepreneur, writes about startups, management, company culture and product design.