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Customer experience questionnaires: What's the secret sauce for super surveys?

28th Feb 2013
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Industry experts outline what to ask customers in your survey and how to encourage engagement.

As more businesses join the trend to redefine themselves as customer-experience driven, understanding customers and what satisfies them has become crucial for success. And customer feedback surveys, thought to retain customers and drive revenue, continue to be used as the main tool to measure experience: Is there any better way of gaining insight into how your customers feel about your brand, products and services than by directly asking them?

Research has revealed that those are not the only benefits customer feedback surveys bring. According to a recent survey by Cint, 62% of consumers are more inclined to buy from a brand that has asked for their opinion in a study whilst 56% claimed they felt more loyal to a brand when asked.

However, with so many brands indulging in this tool, Forrester analyst Adele Sage believes that consumers are becoming fed up with full inboxes or feedback calls. But despite the complaints of many, she argues that surveys are here to stay: “Until there's a (safe) way to look into your customers’ brains, you'll need surveys to figure out their perceptions.”

But the million dollar question marketers face is how to create a survey that both entices customers to respond and then actually complete them? receives multiple requests for customer service advice, one instance being David Gates post in our Any Answers section regarding the specific type of questions to ask customers. So we took these queries to a number of experts in the customer experience field and asked what questions should you ask your customers in an experience survey?

Crafting questions

Jo Causon from the Institute of Customer Service told that, most importantly, questions should reflect what your customer cares about with regard to the service they receive across all touchpoints. She outlines these questions as being:

  • The overall quality of the product/service
  • How helpful and friendly the staff are
  • How the organisation dealt with their complaint or problem
  • Speed of service
  • How easy the process may have been

Marchai Bruchey, CCO of, added that alongside broadly asking your customers for their opinion on ‘How we are doing’, organisations must ensure that the first set of questions provide a holistic view of the entire enterprise.

She says: “You may be doing extremely well in one area but another area of the business may be totally missing the mark and you want to design a survey that gets information from across the business.”

The second set of questions should focus on ‘What can we do better’ whilst the last set should ask customers whether they are likely to recommend you to others, says Bruchey.

Paul Mapleseden from HubsPages argues that organisations must return to the reason why they’re conducting the survey – to take action on the feedback – and base questions around this principle.

“Ask questions where the responses will help you to refine, tweak or improve your products, services, processes or business,” he says. “You also want to ask questions that will make the customer think about the feedback they are giving, but also not too hard that they avoid answering it, which can be a tricky balancing act.”

Enticing response

So once you’ve understood what you want your survey to focus on and have crafted the questions, is there a secret ingredient that guarantees a higher response rate from your customers?

Causon explains: “Getting good response rates is a real challenge and depends how engaged your customers are. It could be a broad average; self-completion is often between 20-25% whilst telephone interviews can often be higher so you'd expect to get a one in three response rate. With B2B surveys you can get anything between 60-70% response rates. So it depends on the type of survey and the methodology used, as well as the indsutry you're in – you’re more likely to get a higher response rate for consumer sectors.

Resounding opinion is to keep your surveys concise. In her new report on survey fatigue, Forrester analyst Sage says: “Make surveys short, with personalized, relevant, and clear questions. Sure, it'll be complicated to bring in the data you already know about a customer, and you'll have to take out some of those pesky questions no one internally actually uses. But your response rates might reach 40% or 50%.”

Tori Smith from Communicate, a PR firm that has instigated surveys to measure brand engagement, agrees: “Be specific! If you ask general questions you’ll get general answers which may not shed much (even any) light on the issues at hand. Also remember that one question may not cover enough ground and you may have to ask several questions on a similar theme in order to build a substantial picture.”

Causon adds that calling about a specific experience or shortly after a particular event is more likely to engage consumers because it’s fresher in their minds.

So how effective are customer feedback surveys overall in terms of analysing a brand’s in-store offerings and customer service?

Customer experience management firm SMG spoke of their experience working with client Pets at Home to launch a customer feedback programme called ‘Fish 4 Opinion’, which gathered response from 102,316 customers. Following the survey’s results, Pets at Home implemented two new procedures to boost customer satisfaction at weekends and encourage engagement between staff and customers.

SMG’s MD, Jeremy Michael, explains: “Modern, strategically implemented customer insight surveys obtain regular, quality feedback from customers. This allows retailers to ascertain where its particular strengths lay, which services customers genuinely valued highly, as well as how the company could innovate and improve its services in the future, including staff performance.”

Maplesden also hails the benefits of customer surveys: “Sometimes you are so close to your own business practices that you’re not able to look at issues objectively. Surveys can be a great way to put yourself in the shoes of your customer and understand things from their perspective. In every round of surveys we have done (around three or four a year), we uncovered findings that helped us improve business processes.”

Causon concludes: “For me, the most important thing about why we're doing the survey is that it helps inform any action plans to improve activities, whether that's about complaints or the whole process of the service. It’s a way of benchmarking your organisation against others, for instance the UK Customer Satisfaction Index benchmarks against other industry sectors as well, which is particularly important when you’re in a highly competitive market.

“Surveys shouldn't be kept separate but should be informing every part of your business. There'll be evidence and information that'll probably impact your processes that will tell you something about your culture, and, in turn, tell you something about your overall strategy.”

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Lynn Hunsaker
By Lynn Hunsaker
12th Mar 2013 13:23

A great collection of wisdom in your post here.  I especially like your points about planning from the start to act on whatever feedback you get from customers, and about questions reflecting what your customer cares about. 

For both of those challenges it's often difficult to see how to rise above the norm -- if you want to differentiate customer experience, don't just jump on the bandwagon and do what everyone else is doing. Learn from best practices and kick it up a notch by thinking about your own experiences as a customer.

For example, with regard to acting on feedback, I hope that companies who get mine not only have a plan to reply to me if I'm disgruntled, but also to use my inputs in preventing issues for other customers and for myself in the future. I hope they'll use it to inform their policies and processes across the company, including their strategic planning and cultural rituals. I hope all of those things because it's far too often actually harder than it should be to be a customer.

And to do that, the quality of feedback they get from me, in representing what I really care about and what they can meaningfully act on, depends on the types of questions I'm allowed to answer. Rather than making me step into their world to judge them on their performance, I'd much rather answer questions about how the company is helping me get done what I need to in my world -- I hope they'd be able to translate that feedback from me into whatever they need to do in their world. If more companies asked me about how well they're helping me get done what I need to do in my world, I'd quit dreading those darn survey requests where I typically feel I'm doing the company a favor by participating. With new technologies for quantifying qualitative feedback, more companies should be shifting to a more customer-centric approach in their feedback requests.

Examples of the ideas above:

-- Lynn Hunsaker is a Customer Experience Strategist, and head of ClearAction customer experience management consulting. She specializes in customer-centric culture, customer experience innovation, and employee engagement in customer experience optimization.

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