How to Write a Customer Survey to Get Actionable Insights
August 2, 2017
11 min read
Writing a customer survey that has a high response rate and leads to actionable insights isn't easy. Here's how to get it right.
If you’ve never done it before, sitting down to construct a customer survey can seem a pretty daunting task. How do you ask questions that will dig deep and deliver information that will be truly useful to your brand?
How do you ensure the maximum number of people complete your customer survey and don’t abandon it halfway? What about getting them to be honest and forthcoming if you’re digging for potentially sensitive details?
On the other hand, what if you end up with too much feedback and simply don’t know how to analyse and implement it? Or how about if your research ends up being too one-sided? It could end up being a waste of time.
Although there’s a lot to think about, by following some best practices you can ensure your customer survey provides real insights. This intelligence can be translated into actions that can improve everything from your products and services, to your marketing, customer service, and ultimately your bottom line!
Refine, refine, refine
When you start writing your customer survey you’ll probably end up with an extensive list of questions. This is no bad thing – it makes sense to get everything you think you want to know down on paper. However, you’ll want to tighten up your survey before sending it out to ensure maximum completion rates.
The shorter your survey can be – without sacrificing the essential feedback you need to obtain – the better. Research shows that the longer a customer survey is, the less time people will spend answering each question, meaning quality decreases.
At Attest, we stick to the 7 minute rule. That is, no surveys should take longer than 7 minutes to complete, otherwise engagement rates tank and the quality of responses also decline.
It is therefore a mistake to try to squeeze every drop of data out of respondents in one go – you can always issue a second survey.
To refine your survey, make a note besides each question of why it needs to be asked. Why do you require this information? What do you plan to do with it? The idea is to only ask questions that are absolutely necessary, and will give you feedback you can use.
For example, while it might be nice to get detailed demographic data, such as education level, income and professional standing, it’s not really needed to understand overall customer satisfaction. These types of seemingly unrelated questions could even invoke suspicion and scare respondents off from answering.
It’s important to keep in mind your overall goal, such as improving your customers’ online experience or ascertaining your biggest competitors, and ensure every question helps to reach that goal.
Make it easy to respond
As well as keeping your customer survey reasonably short, you can increase participation by making it easy to respond to.
There are several factors that will influence this. Firstly, write your questions in plain English, avoiding any jargon or acronyms.
For example, rather than ask, “Which of the following do you perceive as our core competencies?” you could say, “What are our strengths?” In addition, be sure to only ask one thing per question so as not to muddy the water. It’s vital your respondents understand what it is you’re asking.
Make answering as simple as possible. This means giving clear response options that don’t require the respondent to ponder for too long (unless your aim is to get deeper, qualitative feedback). Learn more about quantitative vs qualitative research.
If you include a free text comment section, don’t make it mandatory to complete it or require a minimum character count. Requiring essay-like responses will quickly lead to abandonment.
Don’t create questions that respondents can’t answer accurately due to restrictive response options or inherent assumptions – always include an “other/I don’t know” option or allow them to skip the question if it’s not applicable to them.
Finally, make sure your survey is mobile-friendly so people can answer it when they have a spare five minutes to do so – wherever they happen to be at the time.
If someone is sitting at the bus stop, waiting in a long queue at the post office or commuting on the train, they might actually welcome the distraction of completing your survey, so be sure it’s easy to respond on a mobile device.
Don’t influence responses
While you want to make it easy for people to respond, be careful not to push them to respond in a certain way. The aim is to get honest, unbiased feedback, but badly structured questions and answers could inhibit that.
An example of a leading question that encourages a particular answer might be, “How impressed were you with our friendly customer service representatives?” This question could more neutrally be asked as, “What did you think of our customer service representatives?”
Answer choices can also prompt a particular response. For example, if you asked, “Would you be willing to give more money than you do currently to charity?” and the available answers were, “Yes, I am a caring person.” or, “No, I have more important things to spend my money on.” then you’re likely to get skewed answers. No one wants their character besmirched!
Phrasing can dramatically influence the way a question is answered – it’s a phenomenon known as response bias – so try to keep language as neutral as possible.
Incentivise richer feedback
Getting customers to share really insightful feedback takes more incentivising than simply offering entry into a prize draw.
While that helps drive up participation levels, you don’t want respondents to merely rush through the questions, selecting anything to get it completed as quickly as possible.
It’s important that they understand this isn’t just another old customer survey, simply for the sake of it, and that you really are interested in what they have to say.
It helps therefore, if you can provide some insight into why you’re carrying out the survey and what you hope to do with the feedback gleaned. In fact, we’ve discovered there are 4 main motivations for completing surveys and providing feedback to brands.
For example, if you’ve received some negative press about over-packaged products and want your customers’ help to solve this problem, tell them so. It helps to humanise the research and incentivises the respondents to really engage. Let them know that you will be taking steps to improve your product or service based on their responses so they feel involved and valued.
You might also ask if they’d like to receive an email at a later date to let them know what’s been actioned. This will help reinforce trust and build a relationship for the future – especially useful if you plan further customer research.
Make it anonymous
If the information you’re seeking is especially sensitive – let’s say you’re an insurance or pharmaceutical brand – you may be concerned about getting honest answers from your respondents, who may worry about their answers affecting their premiums.
It’s true that not everyone will be willing to talk openly about their embarrassing medical problem or poor driving, and therefore you might want to consider allowing anonymous responses to your customer survey.
This can also be a good move for B2B brands surveying their customers because their relationship with your company might make them reticent to share negative feedback. It could be awkward to openly criticise a company’s professionalism and then find yourself stood next to the CEO at Christmas drinks!
However, if respondents know their names will not be associated with the comments and responses they should feel much more comfortable giving honest feedback.
Segment your audience
To better understand the responses you receive to your customer survey you need to understand who’s responding, even if it’s not by name.
In order to do this, include a profiling question which establishes their relationship with your brand – whether they are an existing regular customer, sometime customer, former customer or have never been a customer.
This will ensure you capture a cross-section of customers and can analyse the responses to see how their status affects their answers. Perhaps you’ll find the non-customers have never seen an advert for your brand, or that the former customers think you have poor responsiveness?
Other ways to segment your audience include demographic segmentation (based on factors such as age and gender), and psychographic segmentation (see how views vary based on their attitudes and beliefs).
As mentioned earlier, you might not want to take up too much precious survey space with profiling questions, but you can think about the factors that are of most use to you for segmentation purposes.
If you’re using a professional market research company to reach respondents, they might already have the demographic data for each respondent available so you don’t have to ask for it. For example if you’re sending to Attest’s audience, we’ll provide with you dozens of demographic segmentations out-of-the-box, so you don’t need to ask about them.
Look both ways
Looking to increase your customer base? Then isn’t it time you paid attention to those consumers not currently buying your brand? Existing customer surveys are great for finding out how you’re doing and understanding why customers are staying loyal, but they don’t necessarily tell you how to convert new ones.
You can look outwards as well as inwards with your customer survey by asking target consumers the same set of questions and seeing where the gaps are. Or design a survey specifically for non-customers (who fit your target profile) to gain insight into why they’re spending their money elsewhere.
The feedback provided by these target customers may well highlight clear, actionable changes that can be made to increase your conversions. For example, perhaps they favour another brand because of its loyalty programme – now you have the opportunity to introduce your own and potentially win them over.
Great market research incorporates both quantitative and qualitative feedback, which means seeking responses that can be analysed mathematically alongside those that cannot be (anecdotal comments).
Quantitative survey questions will be those where people can respond via multiple choice (i.e. option one, two or three) or a rating scale and can be extrapolated as reflective of customers as a whole.
So if 80% of your respondents choose washing up liquid based on its cleaning ability, (and providing you have a statistically valid random sample) you can generalise this beyond your participant group. This could give you the confidence to base a national marketing campaign on the cleaning ability of your washing up liquid.
A qualitative survey question, on the other hand, might invite people to share their thoughts for how washing up liquid could be improved and you could use this to inspire your product development.
One of the main benefits offered by quantitative survey questions is that they can be easily repeated and provide numeric results that can be effectively tracked over time.
A great example of this is your Net Promoter Score (NPS), which is based on one single question, where customers rate how likely they would be to recommend you.
Regularly surveying for your NPS provides a simple acid test to see whether customer satisfaction is going up or down. If it’s heading the wrong way, it’s time to take action to stop it!
When you set out to conduct a customer survey, you no doubt have a reason for doing so in mind. Clearly establishing the ‘what’ and ‘why’ can guide you when you design your survey.
Customer surveys that are short and simple but well thought through will elicit the most useful data. Take care not to influence answers and to obtain a mix of data from a cross section of your audience to work with.
This will ensure you receive feedback rich with reliable insights helping you identify implementable changes to benefit all aspects of your business.
Bel has a background in newspaper and magazine journalism but loves to geek-out with Attest consumer data to write in-depth reports. Inherently nosy, she's endlessly excited to pose questions to Attest's audience of 100m global consumers. She also likes cake.