Getting the Most from Customer Surveys

Most organizations maintain an opt-in email list of customers, prospects, members, or donors and use the lists as a way to learn about customers and prospects

Insights from ‘friends and family’ email lists can yield significant learning and save money by helping inform more costly external studies. A simple survey can help marketers profile the differences between a brand’s best customers and more causal customers or prospects. These differences can range from simple demographics to motivations for joining, buying or donating. Contrasting internal survey results with findings from a broader sample can provide insights about how customers and view the category and brand, and valuable clues about how to migrate prospects to customers.

Getting the most from internal surveys requires the same level of attention you would give to any other market research study. Response rates can vary considerably from study to study, as some populations are naturally more responsive than others. Even with a responsive list, quality of responses can range from cursory to highly engaged.

Much of the difference is in the control of the researcher and results can be optimized through careful preparation and implementation. Here are some ways to get the most from your internal surveys:

1. Designing the Survey:

  • Keep it short and interesting. While commercial survey panelists are interested in taking surveys, most of your customers see surveys as an intrusion or ‘favor’. Completion rates decline after 5-10 minutes. Focus on simple, engaging questions that can be answered with a few clicks. Research by Lightspeed shows the key response killers are subject matter (35%), length (20%), grids (15%), slow download speeds (20%) and open ended questions (5%) . Interactive question formats have been shown to enhance completion rates.
  • Don’t ‘force’ responses. Allow respondents to advance without answering --partial answers are better than no answer at all.
  • Provide encouragement and feedback. Set realistic expectations upfront of how long it will take to complete the survey. Most sophisticated software packages include a visual indication or ‘meter’ of how much has been completed and how far there is to go. If this isn’t an option, include encouraging messages like “Almost done” or “Just a few more questions”.
  • Provide instructions about what to do if you can’t finish in one sitting. More sophisticated survey software allows respondents to log back in at a later time and pick up where they left off. If this isn’t possible, be sure to provide a warning upfront to wait until they have time to do it all at once.
  • Don’t try to ask everything in one survey. Use branching and complex logic to make sure you ask the appropriate questions of the appropriate customers. You can even think of the survey as a ‘screener’ and follow up with online focus groups or more indepth surveys for those who represent behavior or attitudes of particular interest. • Ask questions that matter. Customers take surveys to be heard. Give them a chance to talk about the things that really matter to them.
  • Pretest your survey. A pre-test will also identify places where respondents bog down and drop out or have trouble answering the questions. Pretesting can also identify costly programming errors before it’s too late.


2. Preparing the Mailing

  • Arrange to mail from a known server with a recognizable signature: Everyone knows better than to click on URL’s embedded in emails from strangers, so make sure your email invitation is well-branded and familiar looking.
  • If confidentiality is an issue, use a third party research company to host the survey. With a third party researcher, you can assure the recipient that once they click through a URL to take the survey, all responses will remain anonymous and accessible only to the research company engaged to conduct the study.
  • Use an engaging subject line: Avoid words known to trigger spam filters like ‘opportunity’, ‘gift’ and ‘win’. Tell potential respondents what their contribution will mean to you and what’s in it for them.
  • Provide an incentive: Ideally, every respondent will receive a reward. Our best response rate occurred with a customer survey for a spiced rum brand. Everyone who responded was promised a promotional t-shirt. The client ran out of shirts and had to order more. We also got a great response for TGI Friday’s in our Millennial panel with a $25 gift card for all respondents. If individual rewards are unmanageable, offer the chance to win in a drawing. We have experienced good results with drawings for $500.
  • Other rewards: We also have found that the promise of being considered for participating in future research in exchange for $50-$100 for an hour of time is also effective. For non-profits, promising providing cash or goods to donors is awkward. In those cases, we suggest promising a brief summary of the survey findings or a donation in their name.


3. After the Launch:

  • Be patient. Allow at least a week for responses to trickle in.
  • Send a reminder: If response rates lag expectations after a few days, send a friendly reminder indicating how long the survey will be open and explaining why it is important to hear from them.
  • Send a thank you or acknowledgement. For small surveys or B2B customers, a personal note is ideal. For larger surveys, a simple acknowledgement is a nice gesture.
  • Update contact preferences: While your respondents will all have opted in, they may not remember doing so. Be sure to provide opt-out links. Surveys are a great time to identify who may be your most enthusiastic advocates. We routinely ask survey respondents whether they are interested in participating in future studies or becoming part of a market research advisory group or panel.


Carol Phillips (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is President, Brand Amplitude®, LLC, an independent consulting firm specializing in consumer insights, brand strategy and brand measurement. Carol Phillips teaches Brand Strategy at the Mendoza College of Business at The University of Notre Dame, South Bend, IN.