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Over-Surveyed Nation: ‘Your Opinion Is Important to Us!’

Gone are the days when you might get the occasional survey request in the mail, or — dreaded — on the phone. And remember those postcards in hotel rooms asking you to comment on your stay? So 1990’s. Now, it’s digital, and it’s relentless.

I knew it was time to write this piece when the phone rang at 1:15 in the morning to see if I could take a short survey following the visit by the Time Warner cable repairman earlier in the evening. Are you kidding me, an automated survey at 1:15 in the morning?

But wait, it gets worse. The following morning a live person called me at 8:30 to ask if I could participate in a brief survey regarding my cable service call. When I rather angrily brought up the earlier call at 1:15 am, she said ” I know, the reason we are calling you back is because you did not respond to the automated survey.” She acted like she was doing me a favor.

As bizarre as this may seem, unfortunately it’s par for the course for the innocent citizens of an over-surveyed nation. And just as this call awakened me, it should be a wake-up call for CEOs who are sleeping better at night because they think these surveys are getting them closer to their customers. The truth is, they may be doing more harm than good.

America’s companies have taken a good idea — getting closer to their customers — and run amok. They are not only irritating their customers, they’re generating useless and misleading data. This insanity must be halted!

Survey Mania

Gone are the days when you might get the occasional survey request in the mail, or — dreaded — on the phone. And remember those postcards in hotel rooms asking you to comment on your stay? So 1990’s.

Now, it’s digital, and it’s relentless.

On the register receipt from dinner on a recent business trip, I was asked to go to a certain restaurant chain’s website — let’s just say they specialize in chicken wings — and answer a series of questions for which I would be remunerated with six free wings (6!) on my next visit (which, hopefully, will never happen). But, I was warned, I had to do it within 48 hours, or else. As it happened, I was kind of busy.

The next night, at a different restaurant chain that I’ll call “Italianesque,” I was similarly invited to log onto a survey within seven days and become eligible for a $1,000 grand prize. After I reached the 20th question and was still only halfway through, I gave up.

In fact, virtually every receipt I got that week invited me either to participate in a survey or share my thoughts on their website.

Nor did it stop even after I got home. The hotel (part of a very large national chain) emailed me asking me to complete a 10-minute survey, and the airline emailed me asking me to complete a five minute survey.

Only the rental car company failed to ask my opinion, and we’ve all dealt enough with rent-a-car operations to suspect why.

During this time, unrelated to my trip, I was also asked to complete surveys by my auto insurance company, my bank, and an auto dealership.

My response to this blizzard? I am:

    Extremely satisfied
    Satisfied
    Dissatisfied
    Extremely dissatisfied
 x  Really annoyed

More than just an annoyance

But this isn’t about me. It’s about how this overkill is undermining the value of customer feedback, wasting time, and distorting companies’ perceptions of what their customers really think.

CEOs are right to care deeply about customer satisfaction. And they’re also right to not only want reliable input from their customers to help fix what’s wrong, but also to use social media and other digital technology to turn happy customers into brand evangelists. But they have to ask themselves some tough questions: Are these surveys doing more harm than good by irritating customers? Are they asking the right questions? Are they generating useful data, and if they are, is the data being put to use?

Perhaps most obviously, survey results are biased by the self-selecting response. This is hardly a revelation. Back in 2006, a Jupiter Research/Ipsos Insight report warned that that surveys suffered from this bias, and surprisingly reported that the bias was toward favorable experiences. The report (itself based on a survey) said that of those who opted to participate in a consumer survey, 59 percent said they were reporting on a good interaction while only 40 percent said they were discussing unsatisfactory experiences.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the bias is necessarily toward good experiences. Think about it: if the total universe of good experiences to bad experiences has a better than 60:40 ratio, the results are still biased toward bad experiences.

(If you go the website to read the report for yourself, you will be greeted with an invitation “to answer a brief (approximately 5 minute) questionnaire” to “help us improve your Web site experience.” See for yourself; I couldn’t make this up.)

The Jupiter/Ipsos report also cited the diminishing value of surveys as the result of sheer overkill. But if anything, they seem to have become more pervasive since 2006, perhaps as window dressing for managers who can use them as an easy way to demonstrate that they are staying close to their customers, never mind that the results may be useless at best and seriously misleading at worst.

Why is this happening?

Simply put, it’s easier and cheaper than ever. We at PulsePoint Group stress the importance of the “engaged” organization, fully taking advantage of social and other digital media to forge close relationships with customers and their influencers.

But, unfortunately, a byproduct of that engagement, and the proliferation of instant-survey sites like SurveyMonkey and Zoomerand, is excessive surveying. A 2009 NPR report noted that “for better or for worse, now anybody can create countless online surveys.”

The result? Growing “respondent burden,” declining response rates, and declining utility of the results.

What to do?

No one company can solve this problem alone, but there are things you can do to make sure that the surveys you do undertake are worthwhile:

  • Ask yourself what information you really need. Eliminate filler questions or stuff that just seems like you “might as well” ask.
  • Avoid self-serving assumptions. Just because I rated your restaurant “good” rather than “excellent” doesn’t mean — as your follow-up question assumed — that you had failed to meet expectations. “Good,” in fact, was all I expected.
  • Ask yourself what you’re going to do with the information once you get it. Will you consider it reliable enough to take action on? If not, what’s the point?
  • Don’t infuriate people by asking them for information you already have. The airline asked me whether I was sitting in first-class or coach, even though they had already identified me as the survey respondent and presumably knew exactly which aisle seat they had charged me an extra $19 for.

Perhaps most importantly, consider the opportunities that digital media offer for a richer dialogue with your customers than a one-shot and response-biased survey that is limited to an after-the-fact snapshot. Engaged companies are finding a wide variety of ways to participate in the online conversation, not only with customers but also with the intersecting networks of people and organizations that influence them.

William J. McEwen, the author of Married to the Brand, recently suggested several ways the traditional survey could be adapted to the new world of digital media engagement:

  • Don’t just survey your customers. Respond to them, let them know the results, and tell them what you’re doing.
  • Don’t use surveys “just as a means to pick the customers’ brains to sell them more stuff.” Redesign them to become ongoing communication vehicles.
  • Use them in combination with, not in place of, “buzz monitoring” and other elements of digital engagement.
  • Make them fun rather than tedious to complete.

Above all, don’t overdo it. A focused, well-thought-out and carefully executed consumer satisfaction effort will produce more useful results than the indiscriminate, relentless surveying that is inundating us all.

About Jeff Hunt

Jeff Hunt is a partner with PulsePoint Group. If this article was helpful, or if you thought it was really stupid, let him know! Email jhunt@pulsepointgroup.com.