Hand filling out survey

An Unexpected Pathway To Customer Feedback

Katie Heaney

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Thanks for reading! Before you move on, we’ve got a few questions for you:

  • Will you stay on the line for a brief survey after your call?
  • Will you go to the URL printed on this receipt and fill out a ten-question survey for the chance to win a $20 gift card?
  • Will you leave us a review on Yelp if your experience was anything other than downright disastrous?

If your typical response to any or all of the above is a firm “no thanks,” you’re not alone. According to SurveyGizmo, the average response rate for external surveys (i.e. business to consumer) is a paltry 10-15%.

When it comes to sharing feedback with a business or brand, most consumers just can’t be bothered. Even a survey that takes 30 seconds to fill out can feel too labor-intensive for what it’s worth to the consumer, especially when it isn’t worth anything.

But businesses and brands only stand to benefit from collecting customer feedback, so what can they do to make getting it easier?

Shep Hyken, a customer service expert and author of the book Amaze Every Customer Every Time: 52 Tools for Delivering the Most Amazing Customer Service on the Planet, offers nine ways to improve the customer survey:

  1. A good subject line
  2. Establish purpose
  3. Clear expectations
  4. Keep it brief
  5. Offer an incentive
  6. Be timely
  7. Clear questions
  8. Multiple choice when possible; and finally,
  9. Limit choices.

Most of these are straightforward, common sense – and commonly offered – suggestions. It stands to reason that customers don’t want their time wasted (or to be bored out of their skulls).  

What’s fascinating, though, is the newer research that takes issue with Hyken’s #8 suggestion: to use multiple choice questions. In a paper titled “Mere Measurement ‘Plus’: How Solicitation of Open-Ended Positive Feedback Influences Customer Purchase Behavior,” published in the Journal of Marketing Research in 2016, a team of researchers led by Sterling A. Bone argued that business would do better to ask customers for open-ended, positive feedback than to give them multiple choice options. In fact, they suggest that to do so is likely to increase not response rate, but that consumer’s spending on that brand or business in the future.

Here’s how that works: When customers are asked to recall some positive aspect of their experience with a brand, their memories of the experience are guided toward focusing on the things they like about the brand — which, in turn, makes them more likely to spend money there again. Bone calls this the “mere measurement plus” effect, meaning that there’s a bonus beyond the mere measurement effect, which states that the very act of measuring a customer’s purchase intentions changes his or her future spending in that department. In other words, if you know someone’s watching how you spend your money, you’ll spend it differently.

It sounds almost too simple: If you want to know what you’re doing well, just ask. But Bone’s literature review cites earlier studies which found that while most businesses (86%) solicit some form of customer feedback, most of it them solicit either general or negative feedback. Writes Bone, “customers have been conditioned to equate feedback with criticism.” Every company wants to do better with its customers, but the research suggests that the best way to do that may be to ask what they did right rather than what they did wrong.

That these questions be open-ended is also critical, says Bone, because being asked to tell the story yourself, as it were, makes you more likely to remember it. “As customers reconstruct and then articulate those positive memories, it fuels positive purchase intentions that have an observable impact at the cash register,” writes Bone. Open-ended questions also create a more enjoyable, authentic experience for the average customer. “Inviting customers to respond to open-ended questions is inviting them to share their stories, and to participate in a dialogue or conversation, rather than just clicking boxes in a survey,” says Bone.

Bone’s hypothesis was tested via longitudinal study, in a large American portrait studio that regularly solicits customer feedback via receipt in exchange for a promotion to be applied at their next visit. Bone and his researchers modified the survey and assigned their more than 27,000 respondents to one of two surveys: the traditional multi-choice quiz (the control group), and an open-ended request for positive feedback (the experimental group). What they found confirmed their hypothesis: Customers who answered the survey with open-ended positive feedback were significantly more likely to repurchase from the store, both in terms of dollars spent and number of subsequent visits.

There are many methods one can use to collect customer feedback, and Bone’s research suggests the format (i.e. email, phone survey, receipt, etc.) matters less than the type of questions asked. Customers value their time, and they value being valued by the brands they buy from. “Genuinely acknowledging and responding to the customer’s feedback is most critical,” says Bone. “Customers need to know their feedback is not falling upon deaf ears.”

So if you’re looking to get more, and better, customer feedback, it doesn’t need to be complicated. Just ask an open-ended, positive question, and be ready to really listen to the answer.

Katie Heaney


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