by Ritchie Sayner

The automated message goes something like this: “Would you be willing to take a brief survey to rate your experience with the service you received today? Press 1 for yes and 2 for no.”

It seems to be happening today everywhere you turn. From restaurants to doctor’s offices, from the phone company to your credit card provider. Everyone is requesting validation that proper service is being rendered and that you are a happy customer. Oh, and assuming you are a satisfied customer, you might receive the most self-serving request of all… would you recommend us to family and friends?

In what has to be the quintessential example of service call irony is this prerecorded beauty: “We value your business so much that we are putting you on hold while we (supposedly) help other customers. You are number 15 in line and your call will be answered in approximately 30 min. Please remain on the line to take a brief survey after your call.” (Right, like that’s gonna happen.) What credible information do you think will be gleaned from a “valued customer” who has been kept on hold for 30 minutes to speak to a customer service representative who most likely can’t answer your question and transfers you to yet another person so that you can start the entire process over again?

Surveys do have a place in the business world. However, like everything else that gets overdone, effectiveness and value are lost if done incorrectly and/or to excess. The best judge of service quality is if the customer keeps spending money with you. Assuming nothing else in your company has materially changed, if you are losing customers and sales are dropping, you have a customer service problem. There’s your answer, pretty simple. No survey needed.

Personally speaking, I only take surveys when the service or products I’ve purchased are exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. Both extremes together make up a small percentage of the surveys I’m offered daily. The rest of the time I ignore them. If your product or service is good, I’ll keep buying and if not, I won’t. If it’s really bad, trust me, I’ll let you know and a survey won’t be required to interpret my displeasure. If your product or service is truly outstanding, I have no problem singing your praises.

Allow me to offer a few suggestions if you are a retailer who believes a customer survey is warranted.  First of all, don’t assume that everyone will answer truthfully; they won’t. Especially if the questions are personal or sensitive. There exists what is known as “social desirability bias” meaning that people answer questions in a way that makes them look like good people.

Research to Show, Research to Know

Surveys are typically designed around two major objectives. “Research to show”surveys are written in such a way that the answers show your company or product in a favorable light. Companies like to use the results of these surveys to show how wonderful their goods and services are. “Research to know” surveys are built so that a company can actually learn and improve what it is doing or making.

When evaluating surveys, give little credence to very positive and extremely negative responses. The glowing reviews, though nice to read, are from your fan base. These folks love you and are believers. They’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid so there really isn’t much to benefit from here. On the flip side, if everything is horrible in a review, don’t let it ruin your day. There could be a grain of truth here, but you clearly have a disgruntled customer. These are the people that, as a merchant, you want to reach out to personally. You need to determine if you did something that poorly or were they just having a bad day? This might provide an opportunity to win back a customer. Thank them for their response. Listen, I mean really listen to their complaint. Try to explain without becoming defensive or argumentative. Perhaps they have a point. The last thing you want is for them generating bad press through a negative Yelp review or derogatory Facebook post. Thank them for bringing the issue to your attention (whether you agree or not isn’t the point), and extend the olive branch. Send them a $25 gift card. It costs you nothing if not used and very little if it is and you just might save a customer. What could be a better outcome than that?

Other ideas that might lead to better survey results:

  • Keep them anonymous. People are more forthright if their answers can’t be tracked back to them.
  • Keep it short and to the point. Think about what it is you’re trying to learn from the survey. Nobody wants to take the time to answer a 5-page questionnaire about your store.
  • Ask for an opinion, not a concrete statement.
  • Use clear, plain language
  • Avoid ambiguity. Be specific.
  • Stay away from double-barreled questions. For example, the question “What do you think of our website and its ease of use?” might elicit two different reactions that could corrupt the response. The respondent might like your website, but find it difficult to navigate.
  • Do not ask leading questions. How do you like our store? is a leading question. Who says I like your store? A better way to ask the question might be, what do you think of our store?

Keeping some of these guidelines in mind might help you get more meaningful responses should you decide to conduct a customer survey.

I couldn’t resist concluding with…you guessed it, a survey. My email is

  • In your opinion, do you think surveys are worthwhile?  Y     N
  • Do you think you receive too many surveys? Y      N

If you like this article, feel free to forward it to your friends. If not, you know where the delete button is.

Ritchie Sayner is a retail consultant at Advanced Retail Strategies, LLC. 816-728-8740-C,