How to Collect Customer Feedback Using Surveys

You can gather great customer feedback from a survey and leverage that information to improve your product by using a few simple tricks of the trade.

The use of surveys to collect customer feedback has exploded in the past few years. With tools like SurveyMonkey, Qualtrics, and embedded survey capabilities within Facebook and Twitter, it has never been easier to poll your customers and get their opinions. Aye, there’s the rub. Sending a survey has become no-brainer easy, and too many surveys are sent with too little thought put into them. Are the responses helpful? Sometimes yes, sometimes GIGO.

Well-constructed surveys are among the most scalable ways to gather structured customer feedback. How can you create a survey which users will respond to and from which you can gather useful customer feedback? When in the product development lifecycle can surveys be most effective?

How to Collect Customer Feedback Using Surveyssurveys-2-1_800x400

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In This Article:

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What are Surveys and Why Use Them to Gather Customer Feedback?

why conduct surveysPolitics. Economics. Lifestyle. “Survey says?” Surveys are everywhere. There are plenty of opportunities to have our opinions swayed by survey results or for us to weigh in on a survey and express our opinions.

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A survey is a questionnaire which is used to poll a specific audience to gain a deeper understanding of their tastes and opinions. Online surveys are often used to better understand your customers’ opinions and tastes. Who are they and how do they react to your product or service? Survey data is typically captured in a database for later retrieval and analysis. According to Techopedia, “In contrast to traditional surveys, online surveys offer companies a way to sample a broader audience at a lower cost.”

Use customer surveys to sample a broad audience at a low cost and get actionable responses.

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Surveys should have between one and ten questions, ranging from structured questions such as simple polls (yes / no), multiple choice, rating and ranking, to unstructured ones like open-ended free-response questions. There are lots of resources online which will help you understand why and how to use the different types of questions.

What kind of feedback will surveys get you?types of customer feed

“From social media you can gauge sentiment and to a lesser extent underlying emotional content,” said Leonard Murphy, who writes for the marketing blog GreenBook. “But you won’t be able to determine why the customer feels that way. A survey gives you the opportunity to dig deeper.” [Source]

“Available survey solutions have led to widespread use of quantitative surveys…to collect, analyze, and use data to formulate strategies for a more effective business model, create targeted marketing strategies, enhance customer service, and much more. Executed correctly, survey research can benefit market researchers with reliable and useable data, and improve research ROI,” according to Susan Wyse.

The Factsanalyzing survey results

Collecting the Feedback: Moderate difficulty. It takes some time to create an effective survey and think about how the data will be used, yet once in place, is can be easily reused.
Analyzing the Feedback: Moderate difficulty. The analysis depends on the complexity of the survey and how much thought was put into what data to collect.
Reach: Broad and Deep. Surveys can be used across a broad spectrum of a population with remarkably consistent results.
Scalability: Highly scalable. Once created, a survey can be distributed across a large population, or reused as often as needed.
Cost: Inexpensive. The cost per respondent makes this one of the least expensive methods of collecting substantive feedback.

Pros… with Benefits

  • Cost & Scalability. Surveys can be relatively inexpensive. Once you have created a survey, it can be reused across a large population, and the results aggregated with very low incremental cost.
  • Broad reach. “Surveys are useful in describing characteristics of a large population.”
  • Constant reminder of what needs fixing… and who you’re building the product for. Get on a regular diet of customer feedback nourished by data from surveys, and you just might be on the road to maintaining outside-in thinking.
  • Flexible. There are a lot of ways to distribute a survey (online, email, social media, mobile, face-to-face), so you have the opportunity to craft a survey that meets your target audience’s needs.
  • “Dependable. The anonymity of surveys allows respondents to answer with more candid and valid answers. To get the most accurate data, you need respondents to be as open and honest as possible with their answers. Surveys conducted anonymously provide an avenue for more honest and unambiguous responses than other types of research methodologies, especially if it is clearly stated that survey answers will remain completely confidential,” writes Susan E. Wyse.
  • You can learn something unexpected. Provide customers with the opportunity to give their opinions in open-ended survey questions, and you just might be surprised what you learn. You may discover some off-label ways they are using your products, or the real reason they chose to purchase your product.
  • More Marketing: Some organizations use surveys as a way to educate their users about under-used features and functionality. “Do you ever turn the function up to 11?” is a subtle way to point out that your product goes to 11.

Cons… with Weaknesses

  • Survey overload. Too. Many. Surveys. They are so easy to create, and so easy to send, that, unless you are vigilant, you may end up choosing to survey everything you can. To paraphrase The Incredibles, too much of a good thing is a bad thing.  ““The frequent requests to fill out these surveys…have been so annoying that people just stop doing it,” said Richard L. Oliver, a professor of management at Vanderbilt University.”soliciting-surveys-500x331
  • Crafting an effective survey. Good surveys are hard to write.
  • Undercoverage and nonresponse. In the case of online surveys, samples may be subject to bias since you are only able to reach and survey people who have internet access. According to Pew Research: “Not everyone in the U.S. has access to the internet, and there are significant demographic differences between those who do have access and those who do not. People with lower incomes, less education, living in rural areas or ages 65 and older are underrepresented among internet users and those with high-speed internet access (see our internet research for the latest trends).”

Using Surveys Throughout the Product Development Lifecycle

At what point(s) in the PDLC will this type of feedback be most useful?

Product Development Lifecycle:

  • Phase 1: Conceive – imagine, specify, plan, innovate
  • Phase 2: Design – describe, define, develop, test, analyze, validate
  • Phase 3: Realize – manufacture, make, build, procure, produce, sell, deliver
  • Phase 4: Service – Use, operate, maintain, support, sustain, phase-out, retire, recycle and dispose

Feedback from surveys can be helpful throughout the Product Development Lifecycle.

  • As early as possible, use surveys to understand your target audience and their pain points. Surveys can be used to uncover latent needs and more importantly to validate your hypothesis more broadly. Use surveys to turn anecdotes into facts.
  • When your product has been released, use surveys to continually bring the voice of the customer (VOC) back into the conversation about what and how to improve the service. Surveys are also a fantastic tool to make sure you hit the mark, and to gauge ongoing customer sentiment about your product. The feedback is invaluable, and surveys allow you to probe into why a user “likes” the product.

Use surveys to turn anecdotes into facts.

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Best Practices & Pro-Tips for Successful Surveys

Do’s and Don’tsdo's and don'ts of effective surveys

Or, how to create and distribute surveys that your customers are more likely to complete.

  • Keep Surveys Short. Does it take more than 3 minutes to complete the survey? If so, tell me that up front, or make it worth my while… this survey better be really important to you, so I’d expect to hear about the results. You can always follow up.
  • Don’t Worry about the Length (with a caveat). (What?!) Some people claim that completion rates for longer surveys can rival those for shorter ones if the survey itself is well designed. I’d add the caveat that survey length could vary within reason if expectations are set appropriately before someone begins filling it out. If you’re new to designing surveys, however, you may want to err on the side of brevity.
  • Don’t Survey Every Time. Statistical significance is important, so make sure you have enough responses to a survey. BUT, survey too often and it’s very likely that the answers you get back will be garbage, ergo still statistically insignificant.  (As you might expect, there is a counterpoint to this. “Young people send and receive communications at a rate we’ve never seen before,” said Claes G. Fornell, founder of the American Customer Satisfaction Index. “They don’t seem to mind answering surveys if they’re not too long,” he added. “When you think about it, the whole concept of social media is, I’m going to give my opinion whether I’m asked or not.”)pros-cons-surveys-300x300
  • Allow Customers to Give Feedback on their Terms. Consider including a ubiquitous “feedback” button or link on your site or in your product, or send surveys via email, create polls on Facebook, or think mobile-first. (Some of these options will be  covered in the in-app feedback post coming up in this series.)
  • Tailor the Survey to the Type of Feedback you Want. Do you need quick validation on whether a feature is working as expected? A simple “I like this” survey, with the option to provide additional details should suffice. Do you want to drill deeper or are you interested in broader feedback? Create a longer survey.
  • Use Surveys to Create a Dialogue with your Customers. Creating a dialogue may be obvious when you use social media, but it’s critical to maintaining a longer term customer relationship. If all of your surveys only take information from your customers and do not result in a feedback loop, you’re missing out on a robust channel of additional feedback.
  • Require Feedback…Judiciously. A case can be made for requiring users to provide you with feedback before they can complete an action or a task. It may just help you learn more about your customers and why they are using (or not using) your product. While some users will not appreciate this approach, it may be worthwhile in the long run. Heavy emphasis on “may.”
  • Are you tracking me? Let users know whether their answers are being submitted anonymously. You’ll likely get more honest feedback with anonymous surveys but at the expense of being able to follow-up or to track how a specific user’s sentiment changes over time.

Operations

  • Track and Measure the Feedback. This is the whole reason you went to the trouble of creating the survey — to be able to do something with the results. So, make sure you have a plan for capturing and assessing the data once you have it. You may want to use the data to establish a benchmark which you can refer back to with each subsequent iteration of the survey. If you do want to track things over time, make sure you build that into how you track and store the data. It may require assigning a unique identifier to each piece of feedback you receive from each customer and ensuring that identifier is used to tag all data from that customer. Welcome to the world of cross-referencing data to see how responses change over time.
  • Do not base anyone’s pay on getting survey responses. As William Grimes wrote in the New York Times, “Traditional surveys are also deeply embedded in the salary and bonus structures of big companies, which have accumulated decades’ worth of information and statistics that analysts use for year-to-year comparisons.”

best survey questionsGood Questions to Ask

  • Don’t forget to ask customers what they want. Provide at least one open-ended response field so customers can tell you want they want or what is on their minds. You just might be surprised and delighted by what they have to say.
  • For surveys completed anonymously, ask customers to include an email / contact info if they are open to having you follow-up with them. If they opt-in to a follow-up, be respectful of their time.
  • Two very popular approaches to gauging customer sentiment about your product and company are Net Promoter Score (NPS) and Customer Effort Score (CES). NPS asks a single question (“What is the likelihood that you would recommend Company X to a friend or colleague?”) and provides a simple, referenceable metric. I highly encourage you to consider using NPS or CES to create an ongoing benchmark.
  • Ross Beard and Client Heartbeat use these four questions to gauge satisfaction with customer service: “Q1) Promptness: How happy are you with the speed and efficiency at which we are able to respond to your requests? Q2) Accuracy: How happy are you with our attention to detail and thoroughness? Q3) Partnership: How happy are you with how collaborative and proactive we are in the way that we work with you organization? Q4) Helpfulness: How happy are you with the extent to which we help you learn and provide recommendations that are in the best interests of your organization?…. These questions are used by the majority of our customers because they give them actionable feedback which can use to measure customer satisfaction, benchmark performance and make better informed decisions to improve their businesses.”

Writing Great Surveys

  • What’s the purpose of the survey?  Ross Beard writes, “A questionnaire with a strong title and purpose will help improve your survey response rates, drive better customer feedback, and make the experience more enjoyable for your customers.”
  • One-time vs Longitudinal Surveys. Will your survey be a one-and-done poll or rerun periodically? If you plan to use it to track changes over time, keep the questions consistent to minimize bias or contamination in the results. And if the results need to be strictly kosher, consider documenting your methods so future generations of product managers who inherit your survey understand your approach.
  • Who is the target audience? Ross Beard points out that “you should be only sending customer feedback surveys to specific contacts you have direct relationships with, inside your customer’s company. For instance, if you are dealing with the Service Manager at XYZ Company, send your surveys to them.“ Great advice and it can be extrapolated to your site or app — be intelligent about which users get your survey, and at what point in their relationship with you and your organization they should receive it.
  • What’s the point of each question? Every question in a survey should be there for a reason and have a distinct purpose. Surveys should not be extended fishing expeditions — know why you are writing it and what questions you are hoping to get clarity on. If you have this in mind before creating the survey, you’re more likely to get actionable, valid results after the survey is completed. If you don’t know the point of your own questions, you risk being branded an askhole.
  • Use a mix of open-ended and closed-ended questions. As Dmitry Grenader points out, while it may be easier to write, tally and analyze the results if you use multiple-choice, rating-, or ranking-based questions, skipping open-ended questions means you may miss out on a great opportunity to learn more about why a customer answered the way they did.

The TL;DR

Surveys are a low-cost, scalable way to capture customer feedback. They help you turn anecdotes into facts, and can be used to formulate, support or disprove a hypothesis. When designing a survey, think about its purpose and the target audience and make sure each question is there for a reason. Design surveys with the end in mind, understand how you want to use the data, and make sure it is structured in such a way that it is easy to analyze. Most importantly, be strategic about when to survey your customers to increase the likelihood they’ll respond.

About the Author

Steven Telio
Steven is a Product Management Consultant who specializes in defining and delivering stellar digital products. He has held senior level Product Management roles with a number of startups, including 4 which had successful exits. He has led projects in a variety of industries for organizations that include EMC, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Syngenta, Boeing, NASA, and Harvard Medical School, and began his career doing technical support for a medical device start-up, where he answered “patient-on-the-table” service calls from neurosurgeons.

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