This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.
Recently The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “The Five Biggest Mistakes Companies Make With Customer Surveys.”
The world is tired of surveys, so, naturally, this caught our attention. But digging in, we found several points of disagreement.
Let’s start by quickly summarizing the piece. The author, Utpal Dholakia, a professor of marketing at Rice University, argues that companies rarely land on the right number of questions—they either ask too few or too many. They also survey customers too often, don’t ask well-formulated questions, and fail to compensate the people whose valuable time they are asking for, he writes.
We agree that companies should ask fewer questions on surveys, and that they make survey requests far too often. But it’s been our experience that the most customer-centric companies (often digital natives) have been able to greatly reduce their reliance on surveys by focusing on their early-stage research, skillfully integrating direct customer feedback into their design of new products and experiences. Tools for doing this include focus groups, tracking complaints, ethnography, and generally collecting a ton of feedback at the front end. By integrating signal data, they capture operational and other metrics that help them improve customer experience and when they launch the new offering, many obvious issues have already been eliminated. Work on the front end lessens the need for surveys on the back end.
As to paying customers for their time, this too must be approached thoughtfully. It can really result in reliable data only when there are double-blind protections. Panelist compensation by an independent third party, paid to people who have no idea what company is sponsoring the survey, is less likely to be tainted by biased response rates or answers.
To our thinking, Dholakia underestimates the operational power of determining how successful a company has been at delighting its customer. Placing the power to close the loop with customers in the hands of frontline personnel who can ask clarifying questions over email, text, or phone really enhances the chances of offering great service, and rectifying failure. Done right, it’s an opportunity to impress your customers rather than annoy them.
There will always be a place for surveys at some level because there is simply no substitute for hearing how you have made a customer feel in their own words. But in a world tired of them, companies have to figure out how to better use them, and integrate digital and operational signals in ways that more consistently enrich customer lives and turn them into promoters. Some leading companies are finding smart ways to do that right now.