Survey says: now I hate your company

I admire companies that make the extra effort to survey customers of their products and services. That is, except when their approach to surveying makes me never want to do business with them again.

Taking the time to follow up with the people who buy your products or use your services, gauge their satisfaction, and solicit their ideas for how you can do a better job next time makes a lot of sense. I recognize the value companies derive from that process, so when they ask me to take a few moments, I’m usually happy to oblige.

That’s when the concept falls apart. If the survey is poorly thought out, badly designed, or executed with flaws, it can quickly go from a simple process to an excruciating exercise, transforming a positive impression into a negative experience. And while we all know how important first impressions can be, our last impression is often what determines whether we’ll return.

One of the worst types of offenders is the company that believes if you’re willing to fill out a survey, they can demand an hour of your life. Okay, I’m exaggerating — a little — but I’m sure you’ve had the experience of receiving a follow-up email, clicking on a link, and finding yourself in a survey that takes 20 to 30 minutes to complete. Sure, there may be the prospect of a $25 prize, but when you compare the value of your time to the chance you’ll be this month’s winner, it’s hardly worth the effort.

Surveys like that are usually the products of committees or of managers who just don’t know what it is they want to know. They keep saying, “well, maybe we should ask this, too” and eventually they have a 72-question survey. Or they ask for information that they’re not actually going to track — such as detailed demographic data — because they’ve seen it on other surveys and assume it must be important.

The only information you need to include on a survey is what’s useful for you to know. If answers to a particular question are going to be superfluous or of minimal value, don’t waste your customer’s time. If what you want to know is why they chose you, just ask that.

To me, the master of surveys was a highly successful auto dealer from Dallas named Carl Sewell, who wrote a great book called “Customers for Life.” Sewell would ask customers to complete brief three-question survey cards as they wrapped up whatever business they were doing with the dealership. At the service window, the questions might address the accuracy of the estimate, whether the car was ready when promised, and whether it was a repeat visit for the same problem. That’s it. He didn’t make customers stand there for 20 minutes, yet came away with information that gave him immediate insight into how well his team was serving customers. If he reviewed 120 cards from the service department in one week and 65 said the car wasn’t ready when promised, he knew he had a problem to address.

Who creates the survey is also important. Many companies use online or emailed surveys, so the task falls to the IT department. That’s usually a bad idea. The problem is that IT people are focused on getting the right information and aren’t aware that a survey creates an impression with the person who is responding. They design the survey to ensure that they get every piece of information, regardless of how they do it.

So when you fail to answer a question, the screen flashes a message to let you know. Instead of doing that in a friendly, encouraging way (“Excuse us, but we didn’t receive your response to this question, and we’d really like to know what you think.”), it typically says something like “You failed to answer a mandatory question” or “Unable to process survey without this item.” Often, the prompts cross the line into what I can only describe as snotty.

If I eat at your restaurant and then get a snotty message when I go to fill out your survey, my lingering impression will not be the delicious entrée or responsive server. It will be that snotty message.

Should you survey your customers? By all means. Just make sure that the people creating your surveys know what they’re doing, so the act of getting the information you need doesn’t inadvertently cost you the repeat business you crave.