How to Design an Effective Customer Survey

Designing an effective customer survey is always a balancing act. You want to give customers the opportunity to voice their concerns and feel that they are being heard, while at the same time you want to uncover specific, actionable insights you can use to improve efficiencies; identify areas for growth; and improve overall customer satisfaction. However, a poorly designed customer survey—one that doesn't properly balance the need for useful insights with the desire to give customers the opportunity to voice concerns—can deliver irrelevant or incomplete information that risks taking your company off course.

Working with MarketTools CustomerSat clients over the years, we've learned that the key to designing an effective customer feedback survey is to start with the end result in mind. As you begin the survey development process, resist the urge to pull together a cross-functional team to immediately start brainstorming survey questions; the more people involved, the more likely it is that the purpose of the survey will be diluted.

Invest the time in defining your particular customer research objectives, and make sure you truly understand what information is required to meet those objectives. What problems are you trying to solve by asking customers about their experiences with your company? The objectives should directly link to upcoming company plans or actions you expect to take. By thinking through the way your survey results will be incorporated into upcoming business decisions and actions, you can ensure that the results will be relevant to your business, and not merely interesting.

Determine the demographic variables needed for decision-making at the outset of your planning process. You may want to make decisions based on customer segment, region, product lines, or some other variable—so you should ensure that these factors are integrated into your survey to more easily segment the data for analysis.

Once your initial survey goals have been established, you can start developing the right kind of questions to ask to get the responses you need to meet your objectives. The best surveys focus on a specific purpose and ask only questions that are relevant and actionable. Staying focused on your goals will help streamline your survey and provide better insights in the end.

Remember that your survey questions also need to be immediately relevant to the customer experience—make sure your questions take the point of view of your customers, not yourself. Framing your questionnaire from the customer reference point might take more time, but it will provide better insights into customer satisfaction.

Design your survey with the total customer experience in mind—the best surveys help respondents relive a particular experience from start to finish, so you can better understand how customers' needs are evolving. If you're looking to improve the customer experience within a particular touch point, consider the complete, end-to-end customer experience that includes that touch point. For example, if you want to evaluate customer satisfaction in your contact center, think through the typical contact center experience to determine the questions you'll ask about each aspect of the process. You might ask customers how long they waited on hold, how they were greeted by the customer service representative, how their issue was handled, if there was any follow-up, and more.

It's also critical to ask the questions in a way that drives clear action without setting false expectations. For example, you may sense that some customers want longer support hours but you're not sure how many customers actually require this. Avoid asking a leading question like, "Would you use support after hours if it were available?" This phrasing could set the expectation that you're considering extending support hours, which you may determine isn't necessary if only a small percentage of customers feel their needs are not being met. Instead, frame the question in terms of how satisfied the respondent is with coverage hours. This indicates you are open to evolving the hours based on customer needs, without implying that change is imminent.

In addition, the best-designed surveys can elicit insights that might open up new opportunities or give your company a competitive edge. For example, if your company has on-site repair services with a four-hour window for appointment times, you may be interested in determining your customers' level of satisfaction with the arrival time of the service technician. If your survey question asks, "Did the service technician arrive within the four-hour window?" and the customer responds, "Yes," you still don't know whether the exact need of the customer was met. What if the customer had an urgent repair need and wanted the technician to arrive within the hour—did that happen or not? A better approach would be to ask if the customer was satisfied with how quickly the technician arrived. Knowing the difference between meeting a commitment and meeting your customers' expectations can help your company outperform your competitors.

A good customer survey can be the critical link between your company's plans and your customers' needs. By clarifying your survey objectives and developing survey questionnaires that effectively incorporate the customer's viewpoint, your understanding of your customers' experience will improve dramatically. These insights will help you drive the kind of improvements that keep customers happy and loyal—and keep your company on course along the path to success.

Greg Marek is vice president of corporate marketing at MarketTools, where he leads all branding and communications activities. Previously, he has held senior-level marketing roles at companies including Citrix Systems, Intuit, and Oracle.

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