I was recently taking advantage of an online sale. The retailer sells a household consumable that I really like and purchase several times a year (especially when it’s on sale!).

At the end of the transaction, I was offered a very vague merchandise reward in exchange for completing a customer survey. I typically don’t fill out surveys, but since I regularly transact with this company, I felt an obligation to help them out. Plus, since I’m in the customer service business, I looked at it as an opportunity to do some research. Okay, and maybe I was hoping for some free stuff or at least a coupon code.

After completing a pretty lengthy survey, the details of the incentive popped up – $100 of virtually free magazine subscriptions. All I had to do was pay a $2 processing fee.


My first reaction was confusion about why this company, that produces popular, reasonably priced home products, was offering me magazines, an item totally unrelated to their brand. My next reaction was an assumption that a $2 processing fee would require giving my credit card information to an unknown third party. Visions of unwanted automatic subscription renewals danced in my head.

Needless to say, I didn’t get the magazines.

But that’s not the moral of this story. The real take away is the strange impression this experience made on me and probably many other customers who took that survey. Was it a bad enough experience that I’ll stop doing business with this company? Certainly not. Will I ever complete another survey for them? No.

When it comes to executing a less than optimal survey process, this company is definitely not alone. Surveying customers is a process that’s full of subtle complexities. While research has not produced “the single best way” to do customer satisfaction surveys, it has yielded some general rules of thumb.

  • Expect low response rates – statistics vary, but count on something less than 10%, and that threshold is optimistic (source: Pew Research and OpinionLab). Survey participation has been declining due to consumer “survey fatigue”, so sample sizes need to be planned accordingly.
  • Incentives do improve response rates, but… – this is a widely debated topic. One argument for opposing incentives is that they might influence people to be nicer (and less honest) because they’re getting a reward. Another concern is that incentives skew the responder population and jeopardize the validity of the results. Do your research before you offer incentives. And if you do offer incentives, don’t make it weird for customers like me.
  • Shorter is better – according to research conducted by OpinionLab, 52% of customers aren’t willing to spend over 3 minutes on a survey and 80% have actually abandoned a survey before completion. This means surveys should be brief, which also means the questions on it need to be laser focused.

Customer feedback is so important to collect, but the collection method needs to be well designed not only to maximize the quality of the feedback, but also to ensure the customers participating in the process have a good experience. So you should ask yourself this rather ironic question: How would your customers rate your survey process?

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