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The best ways to improve customer survey response rates.

In this Guide…

There are many ways to increase response rates, but customers find some of the most common methods irritating. This comprehensive guide will get you more feedback by teaching you how to increase the response rates to your customer satisfaction surveys in a customer-friendly way.

Everyone who starts collecting customer feedback discovers that it makes a big impact.

In fact feedback is so beneficial that you soon find you literally can’t get enough of it and you start looking for ways to get more.

All too often though, we see advice that’s unhelpful – tactics that may generate more responses in the short term, but in a way that’s frustrating for customers. And that means lower response rates in future.

At CustomerSure we recommend positive ways to increase response rates which enhance customer experience. Not only does this generate more feedback, but it’s more actionable and valuable too.

Here are our tips for higher response rates to your customer satisfaction surveys.

1. Make customers want to give feedback.

The question is simple enough: Amongst the torrent of noise people receive in their inbox, how can you make your feedback invitation the one that they’re motivated to respond to?

In one sense, the answer is simple too.

The best way to get more feedback is to make your feedback process a great experience for customers.

Make it rewarding. Though that’s definitely not the same as offering a prize, we’ll come on to that.

And although making it a good experience sounds completely obvious, we all know that’s not what usually happens in practice. How motivated would you feel to complete a ‘short 10 minute survey’ after an online purchase that only took you two minutes? Would two more reminder emails win you over?

Keeping surveys short and focused is a good start, but the solution involves much more than just the design of the survey itself – the whole end-to-end experience of feedback needs to be positive. And no doubt we’ve all discovered that most companies completely ignore the user experience after a customer clicks ’submit’.

The key to success is re-designing feedback – changing it from a ‘push’ process, where you somehow persuade people to give feedback (for your benefit), into a ‘pull’ process where people give feedback because they’re confident it will benefit them.

So for a healthy stream of feedback that makes a positive impact on your business, always test your response rate tactics against whether they make customers more or less likely to want to complete your survey.

There are more tips on making customer feedback a great experience for customers in our three golden rules.

2. How many reminders should I send? (Probably none!)

Reminders are most people’s go-to tactic, and they may occasionally have a place. But there are much better ways to improve response rates which you should consider first.

Based on hundreds of clients and millions of surveys, our data proves that making feedback a great experience for customers is the best way to get high response rates and the best quality insights.

So you shouldn’t rush to send reminders because some customers will react negatively to yet another email in their inbox. The reason they haven’t responded might be that they have no significant feedback that they want to give, and then a reminder can feel like they’re being punished for not responding the first time.

If the goal of your project is to improve customer experience it would be a tragedy if you inadvertently made it worse by annoying them.

Here’s when you should (and mostly shouldn’t) consider using reminders:

  • Reminders are a last resort - make everything else better first.
  • Don’t use them for transactional surveys…the cognitive burden and the time it takes to give feedback should never exceed that of the original transaction.
  • It’s OK to send reminders for periodic (or ‘relationship’) surveys if your customers have a long term stake in your product or service.
  • Never send more than two reminders.
  • Don’t send reminders to people who have already responded.
  • In b to b, personal reminders (for example, a friendly nudge from an account manager) are more effective than impersonal or automated emails.

3. Time it wisely - when will they have feedback to give?

It’s not uncommon for companies to ask for feedback when they suddenly decide they want some data, or because “We haven’t done a survey for a while”.

The problem with this approach is that it’s focused on the company and its internal needs rather than the customer, who may not have had any dealings for months. It will be odd for them to receive a survey out of the blue and the quantity, and quality of responses to poorly timed surveys is low.

Find the best time to ask by working out when a customer is most likely to have some feedback that they want to give.

Customer journey mapping is a great way to identify the significant steps in the lifecycle of your customers and it will pinpoint the best times at which to measure customer satisfaction.

There are two main types of occasion when asking for feedback is a good idea (that is, when the customer is most likely to have some feedback that they want to give):

  • When you’ve done something for a customer - such as when you’ve delivered a product, or when they’ve asked you for help. This is often called a transactional survey.
  • When you provide products or services as part of an ongoing contract and from time to time you want to learn what would improve each customer’s experience (making them more loyal and valuable). This is often called a relationship survey.

Transactional surveys

Transactional surveys should always be sent after the interaction, not before (yes, that happens too!), but usually within about 24 hours of completion.

Response rates usually tail off very quickly after 24 hours.

There are exceptions, for example one of our customers sells do-it-yourself products and they found it was best to wait until after the weekend following delivery so that the customer had a chance to use the product first. Using your knowledge of your business and your customers you should experiment to find out the timing that works best.

Relationship surveys

Relationship surveys are for customers who have an ongoing stake in their relationship with you.

That means it’s fine to send them based on time rather than triggered by an event or interaction.

To improve response rates to relationship surveys:

  • Ask questions only about things that are important to customers. You can drop in an occasional question that’s of interest to you (for example, ‘Where did you hear about us?’) but to keep customers incentivised to respond the majrity of questions need to be about aspects of your product or service that are important to them.
  • Whilst it’s common for relationship surveys to be done in bulk, all at once, it’s actually more beneficial to spread them out over time. You won’t be swamped with responses all at once, so you can process and reply promptly (which makes it a good experience for customers), and you’ll have an ongoing measure of satisfaction throughout the year (so you can find and fix problems quickly).

4. Don’t ignore cries for help – a response strategy is critical.

One of the main reasons people don’t respond to customer satisfaction surveys is that it feels like a waste of time.

There’s some justification for that because, very regrettably, most feedback is ignored. Or at least, that’s how it seems to the customers who do give feedback. Sure, the scores might go into a spreadsheet somewhere, or a report. But in most cases no human being will actually read their comments, let alone take any action in response - even if they’ve highlighted an urgent problem.

Just imagine if a server in a restaurant asked how your food was. You say, “It’s not very hot, and it’s not quite what I ordered,” and they just say “Thank you, your feedback is important to us,” and then they disappear to collate your answer with all the other replies.

You’re left with cold food which you didn’t order, but worse still, think about what’s happened to your satisfaction level? It’s lower than if they hadn’t asked you at all.

Not only that, but what’s the impact on the response rate for the next satisfaction survey?

This poor perception of surveys is what you’re up against. You want people to fill in your surveys, when pretty much every experience they’ve had of giving feedback has been frustrating. Think about it – why would anyone give feedback if it’s going to be ignored?

To increase response rates, your customers need to be confident that you have a process for reading and, if necessary, responding to what they say.

Clearly there’s a cost to responding to feedback. Everyone’s natural reaction is that they’re far too busy already and they can’t possibly respond to feedback.

But that’s falling into the trap of looking at only one side of the cost/benefit equation, because there’s a cost in terms of loyalty, reputation and sometimes even lost customers if you don’t respond too! This is especially true if your business relies on recurring revenue, but it’s true for every business that wants to increase word of mouth recommendations.

Responding to feedback is how you progress from measuring customer satisfaction to improving it. And that’s vital because improving satisfaction translates into financial benefits.

The good news is that it needn’t be hard and it needn’t require extra headcount. Once you’ve switched to this approach, you’ll find you’re doing ‘fire prevention’ rather than ‘fire fighting’ and it’s much more efficient.

The good news is there are only two types of feedback:

  • Service improvement. This is where a customer suggests a way to improve your products, services, processes, systems or people’s behaviours. Making the improvement improves things for all customers, and nobody expects it to happen overnight so you just need to than them for the suggestion and plan it in.
  • Service recovery. This is when your business processes are fine, but something’s gone wrong for an individual. In this case you need to act fast to correct it. But by doing so you’ll turn detractors into promoters.

Gearing up to respond effectively is the best way to improve satisfaction, and the best way to improve response rates.

5. Should I offer prizes to encourage more feedback?

It seems obvious that incentives would increase response rates, but it’s not the best tactic when you think it through from the customer’s point of view.

Consider the restaurant example above…would a 1 in 1000 chance of winning an iPad make the customer any less frustrated with their bad food experience, especially when compounded by a bad survey experience? Well, almost certainly not, as it’s a 999 in 1000 chance of not winning an iPad too.

There’s also the problem that people often perceive that they won’t win the prize if they say anything negative. The result may be a higher quantity of feedback, but it will have lower quality.

Smart customer experience professionals know that the prize customers really want is to have their problem fixed.

They want their feedback to be heard and actioned.

One thing that can help is to give some form of gift as a ‘thank you’ after the customer has given feedback. It doesn’t have to have a monetary value (like a discount code or a giveaway) but it may do. Other ideas for ‘thank you’ gifts are things which are useful or entertaining, such as hints & tips, videos, or things which have value to the customer but are low cost to you so that you can give them to everyone who responds.

The key thing to remember is that the customer has given feedback so that you know what you need to do to keep their business. There’s a very clear win/win if you respond appropriately to what they’ve said because you’ll get the repeat revenue and they’ll avoid the risk and hassle of changing supplier.

6. Make your surveys impressively easy.

Customers are much more likely to complete a survey if you make it really easy.

  • Make it short, fast & simple. Avoid ‘death by next’ with page after page of questions. A single page is the best option because customers can see how easy it’s going to be, and they can work out where their comments fit best.
  • Don’t use conditional logic to insert extra questions. Customers will soon learn to change their answers to avoid an ever lengthening survey, or they’ll just abandon. With careful design you can usually make the survey simpler (and therefore better).
  • Use scored questions about the factors which are most important to customers, rather than the things you want to know. This will increase their engagement and increase responses. Choose your questions by asking yourself ‘What do customers want us to be brilliant at (at this point in the customer journey)?’
  • Don’t worry about what scale to use. It sometimes matters in market research but it really, really doesn’t matter in measuring customer satisfaction. People waste hours on this, don’t fall into that trap. Zero to ten is easy to understand for customers, it’s very common, and it should be your default. Or 1-5 if you’re mainly surveying by SMS and want it to look better on a mobile device. Occasionally a text scale makes sense, but use them very sparingly because it’s a higher cognitive burden on the customer. Again, it may matter in other types of survey but in this context it doesn’t matter whether text scales are 5 or 7 points. So use 5 because it’s easier for customers. Your corrective action will be governed by whether the customer is happy or unhappy, not by two decimal places of precision.
  • Always have at least one comment question. You can have more than one, but don’t require a reason for every score.
  • Place your comment question at or near the end of the survey as a catch-all. Many surveys are badly designed and end before a customer has had the opportunity to say something that’s important to them (with no option to go back).
  • After ‘submit’, do acknowledge the response, but do it by displaying a ‘thank you’ page – not by sending an auto-reply email, which clutters their inbox and adds no value.
  • Most importantly, reassure that it will be read, set their expectations on how it will be followed up – then meet them!

7. Increase your email or SMS open rate.

There’s no point crafting an elegant, fast and simple survey if people don’t actually reach it.

Fortunately there’s much to learn from email (and SMS) marketers about how to write copy that’s engaging.

If you can make your feedback invitation warm and funny it’s a bonus, but most of us find it hard to write entertaining copy.

The best way to increase engagement is to explain very clearly how your customers will benefit from giving feedback.

Of course, you do have to follow through on that promise, but that should be your plan anyway - you should be aiming to improve customer satisfaction, not just measure it.

  • Have a compelling subject line which is short enough to fit in the email preview before it’s opened.
  • Answer the ‘WIFM’ question (What’s in it for me?). How will opening the message and completing the survey benefit me?
  • Make it clear that it will be fast. A customer can tell you what they like or don’t like and what’s most important to them in twenty seconds. Don’t force them to spend longer. (Though you may allow them to spend longer and write more if they want to).
  • Give your customer permission to be candid (see the next section).
  • Explain the process – for example, “Please answer five quick questions. We read every reply because we want to do a better job for you. Click on ‘Submit’ when you’ve finished your answers.”

8. Remove any reluctance to respond.

It’s hard to give criticism when someone’s been nice to you. That’s one reason why surveys are ignored.

For example, supposing you’ve just phoned a customer service centre and the person was friendly, but your problem still isn’t solved (through no fault of theirs). The easy option is to ignore the satisfaction survey rather than say you’re unsatisfied and risk the lovely person being penalised unfairly.

Most people are kind like that. And poor survey design can aggravate this problem if it doesn’t allow the customer to properly rate their experience and attribute feedback correctly.

To overcome any feeling of awkwardness, phrase the feedback invitation so that the customer feels like they’re helping rather than criticising.

Better still, phrase it in a way that they feel like they’re helping you to help them - so there’s actually a benefit to them in replying rather than discomfort.

Instead of, “Tell us how we did?” you might say something like: “How can we make things better for you?” Do you see the difference? In the first, the customer feels like it’s for your benefit, but in the second they’re the beneficiary.

It also gives them permission to be open and honest, and there’s an incentive to respond because the end result is that their life is made easier.

9. Build on your existing channels and relationships.

This mainly applies to b-b.

It can be very effective in increasing survey response rates if account managers brief their client contacts, explain the feedback process and its benefits, and follow up personally with a request for open and honest comments.

Satisfaction surveys aren’t a substitute for person-to-person communication or feedback, they’re an additional communication channel.

Inviting feedback should be like an extra service that you offer customers, making it easy for them to tell you what you need to do to keep their business.

And if your feedback is critical of the account manager themselves you’re more likely to get an objective response to a sensitively designed survey than if the account manager asks about their own performance.

10. What response rate should I aim for?

It might sound odd, especially as feedback is so valuable, but you shouldn’t be aiming to get the highest possible response rates.

The danger is that the pursuit of ever more survey completions can lead to doing things which have a negative impact on customer experience, as we’ve seen when considering reminders.

Always remember that the primary goal of your business is NOT to have the highest response rates possible but rather to achieve the highest profit or growth rate, or (if you’re a non-profit) to deliver the best service.

Amongst our clients we see some who are delighted with 2% because of the quality of the feedback and its value in increasing customer retention. For others it might be as high as 50%. But for both extremes, the benefit to the business comes not from the response rates (which have no financial value), but from higher customer retention and increased likelihood of word of mouth referrals and recommendations.

Rather than aiming for the ‘maximum’ response rate, you should be aiming for the ‘best’ response rate.

How do you know when you’ve got the best response rate?

It’s when:

  • You’ve built a feedback process that’s fast and easy.
  • You’ve given customers confidence that giving feedback will be a rewarding experience.

11. Be prepared for success!

We’ve stressed the importance of responding to feedback because it plays a huge role in retaining valuable customers who you might otherwise lose. So there’s one other thing you need to prepare for – be ready for when your response rates do increase.

In order to respond within a reasonable time you need to plan ahead to make sure your team’s not swamped.

Consider carefully the timing of when you send surveys so that you can respond within a timeframe that impresses your customers.

That’s another excellent way to make feedback a great experience for your customers.

It’s not so much of an issue for transactional feedback – that occurs as a natural part of doing business and is spread out more evenly over time. It’s a bigger challenge when you do a relational survey (which you might do annually).

Many responses coming in all at once are hard to process unless you increase the size of your team or compromise on response times. Neither of these is ideal, so consider spreading out relationship surveys, sending them in batches, maybe a few days apart.

Better still, spread them out over the course of a whole year so that you have an ongoing ‘temperature check’ of customer sentiment. You can spot any big issues before they get out of hand and it’s another way to strengthen your customer retention strategy.

Spreading them over a year might require explanation up the management line and you need to give a bit more thought to how you present the results. There can be a strong desire for annual statistics and year on year comparisons. But it’s worth making a case for rolling feedback and explaining why, because it’s another way in which you’re shifting the emphasis from measuring satisfaction to improving it.

And with a little thought, you can still present figures in a way that shows annual performance and trends.

Taken together, these guidelines will not only improve your response rates for customer satisfaction surveys, they’ll also make a positive impact on the performance of your business.

Read more:

What Questions Should I Ask?

There’s no such thing as the ‘perfect customer service survey questions’. But we can walk you through how to discover the best ones for your business…

What’s the right rating scale to use?

If you know anything about market research, you’ll know carefully picking your scale is important. We’ll show you why the opposite is true when you collect customer feedback.

See how CustomerSure could work for you

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