How to make your customer survey really work

June 13, 2019



Your customers are constantly telling you things about themselves and about your business. When they interact with anyone in your team they transfer valuable information, whether they mean to or not. 


How much effort can you honestly say you put into capturing that information? 


If you’re like most businesses, the answer will be “not much”.


That’s because during most customer interactions, the focus is on completing a transaction, answering a question, resolving a problem or dealing with some other issue that comes up in the ordinary course of doing business. In other words, getting things done. 


The fact is, there’s not too many businesses that are great at capturing real-time feedback from their customer base.


What's also true is that any business that operates in isolation of what its customers think and how they behave is skating on very thin ice. 


Which calls for the use of customer surveys.


All customer surveys are not created equal…


Executed well, a customer survey can provide your business with valuable information about customer  behaviour and attitudes. Executed not so well, there’s a danger the whole exercise will be a giant waste of time and effort. 


With the work involved, and bearing in mind a survey involves communicating directly with customers, there’s a fair incentive to get it right.


Which is a little more challenging than it might seem at first blush.


What makes for a successful customer survey?


It's obvious, isn't it? Running a customer survey that’s worth the effort isn’t simply a matter of thinking up a bunch of questions and sending them out to your entire customer base in the hope you'll get some useful feedback. 


A Google search will bring up any number of sample surveys you could use in your business…but the question is whether you should use them. The temptation might be to take one such survey, adapt it slightly for your own use and get cracking. It’s probably not going to surprise you to know that’s not what we’d recommend you do.


Here’s some tips that will help you get the most from surveying your customers…


What’s the objective?


First thing first: take a deep breath and be clear on exactly why you’re embarking on customer survey. What, exactly, are you hoping to achieve? 


There’s a range of reasons you might want to tap into the collective opinion of your customer base. It might be to:


  • gather opinions about current service quality;


  • seek feedback on a new product or service you might be considering;


  • understand what you’re doing well or not so well; or


  • gain insights into why your returning customers come back to you,


There’s really no limit (apart from your imagination) to what you might want to learn from running a customer survey. 


Because of that, clarity of intent is paramount. It’s that clarity that will determine the appropriate questions to include, how to ask them and who to ask.


Speaking of which…


Businesses that send standard surveys to everyone in their customer data base will nearly always be disappointed with the result.




Focusing on your objective will give you the answer to that question. 


Think about this...


If you’re looking for meaningful feedback on whether a new product is likely to get traction you’ll get more informed opinion from customers from whom you receive repeat business. They’re the ones who’ll be more engaged with what you do today (they keep coming back after all) and as a result have something useful to say.


Or this...


What if you want to increase the proportion of “one-off” customers becoming repeat users of your products and services. In this case you might want to target existing repeat users asking them some specific questions about why they stay with you. At the same time, you could also consider asking some of your current single use customers what would make them buy from you again but of course with a somewhat different question set.


You can see from just these two simple examples the importance of being clear about your objective in running the survey.


The last thing you want to do is bother a bunch of customers with a survey that has little or no relevance to them - it’s just annoying and will quickly turn them into non-customers.


So, target the right customers with the right questions.


Don’t leave things open to interpretation


The best customer surveys leave nothing to chance. 


First of all, when sending the survey to your target customers, include a note that tells them specifically why you’re running the survey and why you’re asking them to be involved.


“Specifically” is the key word here…


Something like “we value your feedback” really doesn’t cut it.


Rather, tell them why you value their feedback - for example, “your feedback will help us improve our product line/service offer/customer experience” gives the whole exercise a point.


Second, ask great questions that clearly relate to the objective you’ve communicated. Keep the following in mind:


  • Word your questions clearly - responses become less reliable (and therefore less useful to you) when respondents start making up their own minds about what you’re asking them;


  • Short, direct questions are better than longer ones - it makes the survey easier to complete and reduces the likelihood of misinterpretation;


  • Keep the overall survey as short as possible - ten to twelve well targeted questions should get you the result you need (again, as long as you’re clear and focused on your objective);


  • Keep free text responses to a minimum - there’s mixed opinion on this but we reckon more useful outcomes are achieved if responses are scale-based and/or multiple choice (with one or two exceptions mentioned below). The proviso is you’ll need to put some extra effort into crafting possible responses - we reckon that pays off in the long run in terms of ease of analysis and quality of information;


  • Address only one issue per question - for example, “does the product you bought meet your needs and represent value for money?” is a question for which it’s next to impossible to craft a limited number of multiple choice responses that make sense. 


Put simply, the ideal customer survey is one that’s quick and easy to complete (and return) and where the questions make sense in the context of your stated objective. 


You want it “warts and all”…


Well, you might not want it that way, but it’s almost certainly how you need it…


It’s so important to give your customers the opportunity to tell it like it is. Feedback is a valuable gift and we’d argue that feedback that identifies where things can be improved is the most valuable of all. 


So, once you create what you believe to be the ideal survey for your needs, review it to make sure it’s as objective as possible and not skewed to positive outcomes. You won’t mean to do it, but sometimes the subconscious kicks in and questions become framed in a way that reduces the likelihood of negative feedback.


Engaging a third party to work with you to design your survey will lead to a more balanced approach - of that, there’s little reasonable doubt.


Anonymous or not?


For the most part, we recommend leaving this decision to the customer.


Providing suggestions for improvement is quite a difficult thing for some people to do. Anonymity can make them more inclined to open up. It’s just how some people work.


On the other hand, when customers put their name to their responses, it allows you to personally follow up on issues that are clearly bothering them. Calling up people who take the time to make suggestions for improvement to a) thank them and b) discuss their suggestion in detail, does absolute wonders for customer relations. 


If you’re offering an incentive of some kind (which is a legitimate thing to do to increase response rates) then the matter of identification is out of your hands entirely - it’ll be the customers’ call.


Your customers need to feel in control of the process and comfortable participating. Leaving the question of anonymity to them will help with that.


Maximising response rates


We’ve already covered a couple of points that will help here: telling respondents why you want their opinion, keeping the survey short, making it simple to respond and allowing them to decide whether or not to identify themselves are all important in encouraging responses.


Consider the following as well:


  • Incentives - can certainly encourage people to participate. They don’t need to be earth-shatteringly fancy….just going in a draw to win a couple of movie tickets can help;


  • Time frames - remember to provide a deadline for responses. And if response rates remain unsatisfactorily low as the deadline approaches, send a reminder - people have a lot of “stuff” on their minds these days...


  • Offer a summary of results - people love to compare themselves to others. Offering access to a summary of survey results gives them the opportunity to see how their views sit with those of other respondents. It’s a stronger driver of human nature than you probably think.


Remember though - simplicity and relevance are your best friends in running a customer survey that people are happy to respond to.


Before we go...


There’s three more things we need to mention.


First, every customer survey should include one or both of the following questions:


  • “What’s one thing we could do to improve your customer experience?”; and,


  • “Is there anything else you like us to know?"


These are arguably the most valuable questions you can ask any customer because nearly everyone will have a view. And they’re the exceptions to the earlier recommendation about scale-based and/or multiple choice response formats. 


Second, don’t let your survey become an exercise in futility. Act on the information you collect. It’s gold and should be treated as the precious commodity it is. 


Third, use the survey as an opportunity to reaffirm your business purpose. Mention it when you tell customers why you’re surveying them. Reference it in a question or two in the survey itself. Use it as the anchor for follow up action, including any summary of results you might send to respondents. 


Remember...your purpose is why you're in business beyond the economics of revenue and profit. Take every available opportunity to reinforce it with your customers.


And your business? Are you in the mood for feedback?


The only way to find out for sure is to ask them! It's a time consuming exercise and one you want to get right.


If you want to run a customer survey but aren't too sure where to start, we’d love to help you do just that. 


So give us a call or drop us a line.


We can’t think of a good reason not to.


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