Best Practices for Online Surveys--A Five-Step Process

In today's highly competitive marketplace, business owners are continuously forced to act quickly in order to increase profits, create effective customer acquisition programs, and reduce customer defection. While much attention has been placed on selection and installation of CRM systems in order to bolster customer acquisition and retention efforts, an equally important question has gone unanswered. Why? Why has a customer chosen to do business with you, or equally as important, why did a prospect not choose to do business with you? Although CRM solutions are adept at delivering valuable quantitative data that helps an organization characterize a customer and answer questions such as who, what, when, where, and how much, these solutions are incapable of providing insight into the why of the relationship.

Web-based surveys continue to take on a strategic and instrumental role in the customer life cycle as they enable companies to gain valuable feedback, and hear the "voice" of the customer. While traditional research methodologies have provided this voice, a new dimension in efficiency is achievable by simply integrating Web survey technology into the existing CRM and HR information systems infrastructure.

Best Practices for Online Surveys--A Five-Step Process
Creating a survey whose results provide an organization with information necessary to make sound business decisions is more difficult than most people realize. However, by following these five steps you will be well on your way to a better customer relationship:

1. Determine the Business Process
The survey designer is faced with many important questions that need to be addressed prior to execution. Before embarking on the survey design, users need to determine the business objectives and answer questions such as:

  • What is the purpose of the survey?
  • What am I trying to measure?
  • How many questions should I write?
  • What type of rating scale should I use?
  • How do I know that my survey worked?
  • Will the data be actionable?

    2. Design the Survey
    The most important part of the five-step process is designing the survey. Some of the steps, although simple, are often overlooked resulting in significant reductions to response rates. To be successful, users should:

  • Begin with a title and a preamble--explain the overall aim of the survey, whether it is part of the survey invitation or at the beginning of the survey itself.
  • Balance white space--balancing the use of white space between both questions and sections greatly improves readability.
  • Prepare instructions--provide general instructions at the beginning of each section and clearly define specific instructions associated with the different question types to aid in the correct completion of that question.
  • Use filter questions--provide the ability for respondents to bypass questions (or whole sections) that are not relevant to them.
  • Allow don't know/not applicable selections--if a respondent is unsure about whether to answer a question, or which answer is the most appropriate, they should be provided with a let-out selection, such as don't know or not applicable. When a large number of respondents choose such options, it is time to examine whether the question is badly worded, or in the wrong place.
  • KISS, or keep it short, simple.
  • Check readability--the reading difficulty level of the instructions and questions should be kept at the eighth grade level or lower, without being condescending.

    3. Select the Sample
    A sufficient sample size is an important requirement for a successful survey. If the sample size is too small, erroneous conclusions are possible.

    4. Implement the Survey
    Response rate is the single most important indicator of how much confidence can be placed in the results of a survey. A low response rate can be devastating to the reliability of a study; therefore, testing your survey is essential. What may seem obvious to the survey author may be completely unclear to the typical receiver.

    5. Analyze and Report the Results
    The analyses of survey responses should address two concerns, (1) the validity of the questions and (2) the substantive business issues that drove the survey. The validity of the questions can be assessed by examining the number of respondents who chose each response option.

    Reap the Benefits of Asking Why
    While CRM systems can get an organization 90 percent of the way towards reaching its CRM objectives, the systems do not answer the key question of why. By taking the time to ask yourself the reason you need an online survey and by following the five simple steps mentioned above, you will be well on your way to answering the most crucial question--why your customers do business with you and 'why' they choose to be loyal.

    Dr. Paul Squires is president of Applied Skills & Knowledge (AS&K), a management consulting and outsourcing company. Dr. Squires is an industrial psychologist with 20 years of experience with training development, assessment development and validation, computer-based training, and project management. Paul can be reached at 973-631-1607 or via email at

    Arturo Coto is CEO at Inquisite, a provider of online survey technology. Arturo can be reached at 512.225.6800 or via email at

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