5 Steps to Create Effective Online Surveys

Published November, 2004, in Marketing News magazine, pg. 23-24

In the global economy of the 21st century, your organization’s very survival can hinge on its ability to gather timely and accurate feedback from key business stakeholders. Of these stakeholders, most companies agree the single most important is their customers, whose opinions and perceptions can be the strongest determinant of the future success of the organization.

Despite the enormous importance of customer opinions, few companies have a formal process in place to accurately measure and act upon them. Luckily, there is a convenient way to give a voice to the “silent majority” of your customers and act upon their opinions before your competitors do: online customer surveys. Based on our experience executing hundreds of online customer surveys for leading companies across the country, we have distilled the survey process into five easy steps that any company can take to design and execute an effective online customer survey program. The process is quick, inexpensive, and guaranteed to yield invaluable results.

Step One: Buy-in Phase

An otherwise well-planned and executed customer survey program can be rendered useless without the proper level of organizational buy-in. Everyone in your organization must be made aware of the upcoming customer survey program, educated as to its benefits, and committed to acting upon the results.

Experience shows that a memo released from the company’s CEO touting the importance of the customer survey program is a fast and effective way to get employees on board. Not only does this demonstrate the value of the survey program to upper management, but also alerts salespeople and account representatives that the silent majority is about to be heard.

Step Two: Survey Design

A well-designed online customer survey is essential the collection of valid, reliable, actionable data.

Typical customer surveys are designed to measure overall customer satisfaction, product-specific satisfaction, timeliness of delivery, customer service process satisfaction, returns and exchanges process satisfaction, and interest in new products and services. Naturally, these topic areas will vary by industry and company need. It’s important to hit upon all aspects of the customer experience which might affect a customer’s likelihood to remain loyal.

The technical aspects of online customer survey design are typically managed by a company’s IT department if the survey is conducted in-house. There are a number of user-friendly tools that can be used to assist with this process, including both standalone software programs and online applications. Of course, many companies decide to outsource the process to a third-party online market research firm as they can bring years of relevant experience and expertise to the table.

A survey instrument is a measuring tool – and as with any measuring tool, the measurements it takes are only as accurate as the tool itself. Since measuring customer sentiments can be tricky, we consider the questionnaire design stage the most “sensitive” in the process.

Step Three: Survey Administration

Online customer surveys are the easiest and most effective way to gather real-time customer feedback. One of the main advantages of online surveys is that they tend to achieve a higher response rate than offline methods. Most customers prefer completing a survey online as they may do so at their leisure, at any time day or night. Further, online surveys are as easy to complete as making a purchase on Amazon.com – all you have to do is follow some instructions and make a few mouse clicks.

Though customer survey responses rates will vary depending on the nature of your client interactions (transactional vs. relationship) and the degree to which clients feel they have a stake in your organization, we have found that the success of any online survey program can be boosted through the use of respondent incentives and regular email reminders.

Step Four: Survey Analysis

The survey results are in. Now what? Blending the feedback of hundreds or thousands of customers into a single coherent voice can be tricky, but is of vital importance if meaningful conclusions are to be reached.

The most common method of identifying trends in customer survey responses is through a range of mathematical techniques called statistical analysis. We are all familiar with the statistical concept of a mean or average, but this represents only one tool in a good tackle box of statistical analysis methods. Other handy statistical techniques include the standard deviation analysis and regression analysis.

Standard deviations are useful for calculating the level of agreement that respondents exhibited to each survey question. The lower the standard deviation, the closer responses tended to hover around the mean. For example, if Question X had a mean response of “3” with a standard deviation of “0.5,” and Question Y also had a mean response of “3” but with a standard deviation of “1.0,” we know that customers felt a similarly with both issues but there was more agreement when it came to Question X.

Regression analysis measures how often certain survey responses tend to correlate, or move in tangent. Looking at such correlations can tell us things about respondents’ sentiments that they may not have even been consciously aware of. For example, if we notice that respondents who are very satisfied overall tend to also indicate an excellent relationship with their sales consultant, we might infer that positive salesperson relationships lead to satisfied customers.

Step Five: Results Implementation

Far too many well-designed, administered, and analyzed customer surveys fail to yield positive change due to a simple lack of results implementation. The results implementation stage is where the proverbial tire meets the road.

Every report summarizing survey findings must end with an action plan, including a list of actionable recommendations along with the names of those responsible for each change and a deadline for completion. Intended changes must be realistic, achievable in the short-medium term, and most importantly, backed by data.

Many organizations find that survey results confirmed their existing suspicions. Even if this is the case with 100% of the results, however, the survey project was not done in vain. Quantitative results in the form of graphs and numbers are much more compelling and actionable than hunches or antidotal evidence.

It is important to remember that a customer survey is not an isolated event, but rather the beginning of a continuous improvement cycle. Even while the results of the first customer survey are being implemented, plans must be made for the next survey administration. We recommend that survey be re-administered at least every 6-12 months.

Companies who have committed themselves to an ongoing customer survey program will often tell you that it’s one of the best investments they have ever made. Many can’t imagine how they would get by without the instantaneous and actionable feedback that online customer surveys provide. Those companies who fail to give a voice to their own “silent majority” do so at their own peril.

Jared Heyman is founder and senior project manager of Infosurv, Inc., a full-service online market research firm based in Atlanta