Your survey says: I now have good reason to hate your company

Companies that make the extra effort to survey customers of their products and services usually gain my admiration — except when their approach to that survey makes me never want to do business with them again.

There’s a lot of sense behind taking the time to follow up with the people who use your products or services, gauge their satisfaction, and invite ideas for how you can do a better job next time. Knowing how useful such information can be, I’m usually only too happy to oblige.

But far too many surveys are poorly thought out, badly designed, or executed with flaws. When that happens, my positive impression of the company can quickly transition to a negative experience. And while most of us focus on that important first impression, the reality is our last impression of the business determines whether we’ll return.

A particularly annoying example is the company that believes your willingness to complete a survey allows them to demand an hour of your life. I’ll admit to exaggerating — a little — but I’m sure you’ve had the experience of clicking on a survey link and finding yourself trapped in a 20-minute endurance test. The company dangles a chance at a $25 prize as a motivator, but when you compare the odds you’ll win to the value of your time, it’s just not worth the effort.

Too-long surveys are usually the products of committees or of managers who just don’t know what it is they want to know. As they develop the survey, they keep saying, “well, maybe we should ask this, too,” until they’ve assembled 72 questions. Often, they’ll also ask for information they have no intention of tracking or analyzing (like detailed demographic data) because they’ve seen that on other surveys, so it must be important.

What should you include on a survey? Just what you want to know. If the answers to a question are going to be of minimal value, don’t waste time asking it.

I learned a lot about surveys from a highly successful Dallas auto dealer named Carl Sewell, who wrote a great book called “Customers for Life.” He asked customers to complete brief three-question survey cards as they wrapped up their business with the dealership. For example, at the service cashier, the card’s 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.

Sewell’s approach took less than 15 seconds of the customer’s time, yet it provided immediate insight into how well his team was serving customers. If he reviewed 120 cards this week from the service department and 65 said their car wasn’t ready at the promised time, he knew there was an issue he needed to investigate.

Another issue involves the creators of the survey. Because many companies use online or emailed surveys, the task often falls to the IT department, and that’s usually a bad idea. IT people are very intelligent, but their primary focus tends to be on gathering the right information in the right format. Many of them don’t realize that the interaction involved creates an impression with the person who is responding.

When you fail to answer a question correctly, the screen flashes a message to let you know. But instead of doing that in a friendly 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 cold and angry such as “You failed to answer a mandatory question” or “Unable to process survey without this item.” These error prompts often cross the line into what I can only describe as snide language.

If I have a delightful meal at your lovely 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. I’ll remember you by that snotty message.

Is there value in surveying your customers? Absolutely! Just make sure that the people creating your surveys know what they’re doing, so getting the information you need doesn’t inadvertently cost you the repeat business you crave.