E-Chat Today: Tedious Questions & Other Potential Survey Killers

I was enjoying a quiet evening at home when I got a phone call. It was a survey-taker from a company with which I do business. For the purposes of this post, let's call the company Blundersurv.

After nearly 10 minutes of answering questions, I asked the survey-taker how much longer the survey would take. When she responded with a number of minutes far higher than I cared to stay on the phone with her, I begged off and hung up.

The problem for me wasn't too many questions. It was too many wrong questions.

The survey-taker had peppered me with a tedious series of loaded questions. Several were inapplicable. Many more were so poorly worded as to be virtually unanswerable. I was getting survey fatigue, which the blogger Sandra Gittlen discussed this week. The two of us will talk about that topic today, Feb. 2, at 2:00 p.m. ET in an instant e-chat here.

In one series of questions, the Blundersurv survey-taker repeatedly asked me about the quality of service I'd received from the company for as long as I've used the service. She made a point of asking me to consider how I felt about my entire history of doing business with Blundersurv -- with the pointedly clear implication that I was to place equal weight between recent events and those from long ago.

I've been a Blundersurv customer for many years. Several years ago, Blundersurv had given me some of the very worst customer service of my entire life, and I had come very close to canceling. Since then, the customer service has improved considerably, and I am now a mostly satisfied customer. To answer the questions honestly, however, I'd have had to give a misleading series of "dissatisfied" responses.

Additionally, Blundersurv's survey asked nitpicky questions about quality-of-service ills I would have never thought to consider -- until I was asked. Suddenly, every minor frustration I'd had with Blundersurv in the past year flooded into my consciousness.

By asking me these questions, not only was Blundersurv obtaining irrelevant, misleading, and obsolete information about my present satisfaction, but it was also forcing me to reflect upon almost every single problem I have had with the company in the past -- problems from months and even years ago.

These reflections, combined with the burden the survey was placing on my time and energy, made me irritated with Blundersurv. I began to doubt the wisdom of continuing to do business with the company.

What can you learn from Blundersurv's blunder?

  • Don't beat around the bush. Ask the customer what you really want to know. Have you satisfied the customer? Will the customer recommend your organization to others? Boil it down to what's important -- and keep it simple.

  • Ask yourself, "Do I care?" Be realistic with yourself about what you plan to do with the data you collect. If a customer had a bad experience at your store two months ago, will you attempt to rectify it? If so, great. If not, don't ask about it.

  • Understand the value of your data -- put a dollar figure on it. Asking a telecom customer about overall satisfaction with call quality is OK. Asking that customer about every dropped call or bad connection may be too much. At best, the customer may feel badgered. At worst, you may open a can of worms. These details may be valuable in efforts to improve your call quality, but you must determine if getting them is genuinely worthwhile. Remember that every question you ask your customers is a tax against the good will you have earned from them.

These tips alone may or may not lead to the perfect survey question, but they'll at least help you avoid asking the wrong one.

What are your best-practices for assuring your surveys result in great, usable data for analytics? Share on the message board below, and be sure to join our e-chat this afternoon. Again, we'll be chatting at 2:00 p.m. ET about the death of surveys and the rise of social media analytics. Join the chat, and share your insight.

Joe Stanganelli, Attorney & Marketer

Joe Stanganelli is founder and principal of Beacon Hill Law, a Boston-based general practice law firm.  His expertise on legal topics has been sought for several major publications, including U.S. News and World Report and Personal Real Estate Investor Magazine. 

Joe is also a communications consultant.  He has been working with social media for many years -- even in the days of local BBSs (one of which he served as Co-System Operator for), well before the term "social media" was invented.

From 2003 to 2005, Joe ran Grandpa George Productions, a New England entertainment and media production company. He has also worked as a professional actor, director, and producer.  Additionally, Joe is a produced playwright.

When he's not lawyering, marketing, or social-media-ing, Joe writes scripts, songs, and stories.

He also finds time to lose at bridge a couple of times a month.

Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeStanganelli

Also, check out his blog .

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Re: tax filing survey
  • 2/6/2012 12:44:54 PM

Hi, Shawn.

The context of this advice comes specifically for small business owners.  People doing business with you as a small business -- where they probably deal with you, as the head of the company, personally -- are probably more likely to indulge

Of course, the advice could hold for larger operations as well.  In any case, one to three simple, straightforward questions is unlikely to alienate many.

Re: tax filing survey
  • 2/6/2012 12:38:11 PM

Hi Joe,

So this is essentially a survey as marketing, then? I have to say, no matter what some may think of it, this seems like a no-brainer and kind of a necessary tool for expanding a customer base. Or do you think it has the potentisl to alienate existing clients and, if so, is it worth that risk?

Re: tax filing survey
  • 2/6/2012 12:23:53 PM

Of course, it depends upon who's doing the referring.  A substantial chunk of my referral business in the early days of my law practice was PITA clients who I wasted time and money on.

The point is well taken, however, and many professionals advise sending such a survey to your clients specifically to get your clients to give you referral business (and indicate to you which clients to target for these purposes).

tax filing survey
  • 2/6/2012 8:55:40 AM

Do any of you use TurboTax? We filed over the weekend. At the end of our hour+ endevour we were greeted with a short net promoter survey. These surveys are short and deliver results by asking how likely your customer is willing to recommend your product/service. Depending on the initial response you follow up with a single comment box to find out why they chose that rating. Who doesn't prefer word of mouth referrals over the expense of customer aquisition from other methods?

Re: Self-fulfilling prophecy
  • 2/3/2012 10:40:25 PM

Hi Seth,

Just curious. Getting back to Joe's post above, what recommendations would you make to be sure your survey is relevant and useful.

Re: Self-fulfilling prophecy
  • 2/2/2012 10:56:26 PM

I honestly don't know, but I have not yet seen it on the market (Here in California) and it has been two years. However, I don't know what the development cycle for that industry is. 

If our report helped to kill it, I feel bad, but not as bad as they would for producing a phone that wasn't liked.   

Re: Self-fulfilling prophecy
  • 2/2/2012 10:31:32 PM

Did that end well? Were the dismal results accepted and the phone redesigned?

Re: Self-fulfilling prophecy
  • 2/2/2012 6:20:32 PM

If that was recent, I don't find it surprising. For the past couple of years a lot of research has been flat. But if those are the results, those are the results. 

My former classmates and I did a research project  for a professor and a collegue that was designing a new cell phone .  While it was a beautiful phone, 100% percent of the focus group  found the applications confusing and not user friendly.  (How Americans are used to having a phone set up is quite different than an European. He was upset over the results and took the results personally.  But I told him if I measure the temperature and it's 76 degrees outside and everyone else measures it at 76 degrees, don't get mad at me. 

Re: Self-fulfilling prophecy
  • 2/2/2012 5:42:11 PM

Seth, a big part of the problem was that this was an annual survey -- on IT salaries -- and there was just so little change year to year that we struggled to find compelling results. Each year we built in a new set of questions aimed at freshening up the survey and providing new insight, but those results were hit or miss, too. 

Re: Self-fulfilling prophecy
  • 2/2/2012 5:37:05 PM

@ Beth - Do you have an insight on why that happened? Was it the survey, or the problem it was to solve not defined?


Then there are times when data gives poor results.  We have to remember if a survey has 95% certainty, a great number, that's still a 5% chance its wrong. Sometimes one can do everything right, but still fail. 

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