Marketing’s Public Enemy #1

wanted poster - surveyMarketing’s Public Enemy #1

Avoid these 3 common traps

by Mike Walker • December 22, 2014

One of the few benefits of aging is that people around you come to expect a curmudgeonly rant every now and then – even during the holidays. So it’s in that spirit that I’d like to share a few thoughts about the perils of relying on written customer surveys when assessing the strengths and weaknesses of your products or services, or when trying to understand the determinants of peoples’ behavior.

First, an example…

It just so happens that the vendor providing much of our web hosting sends us a follow-up survey each time we interact with their customer service department. The surveys are always the same, asking that we rate our experience on a scale of 1-5 across a number of service dimensions – thoroughness, politeness, promptness, etc. We’ve all received these at some point or another, right?

Here’s why I hit “delete” the instant I spy one in my email inbox.

I have very specific, very actionable feedback that I’d love to share with this particular vendor. Acting on it would involve a fairly trivial modification to their software’s user interface, making it much easier and faster for small business operators like me (their core customer) to navigate. I’m pretty sure the change would also eliminate a large number of costly calls from frustrated customers each quarter. The problem is, there’s no way to share my suggestion via the survey.

Sure, I could search the company’s website for a customer service email address or call them again and wait on hold. (Another benefit of aging – I kind of like their hold music.) But like most small business owners, there are too few hours in my day. So it’s relegated to, oh, number 794 on my list of top 795 things to do. Besides, is it rational to believe that the organization behind such an inane survey would act on my suggestion, even if I went to the trouble? Probably not.

Bottom line: opportunity missed. Meanwhile, my vendor’s competitors are busy finding new ways to improve their products and services, and I have yet another reminder that it’s time to look around for alternatives.

Let’s get something straight: written surveys can be very useful for collecting demographic information about our customers and (arguably) for identifying glaring problem areas with products and services. But more often than not, they just induce a sense of complacency. In the absence of negative feedback, we assume we’re doing all right – and that’s a very dangerous assumption.

Here’s why I consider written surveys to be the enemy of smart marketing professionals:

1. The omission trap.

Surveyors rarely ask all of the right questions. And customers rarely take the time to sufficiently explain their answers or to volunteer unsolicited information. According to Richard C. Whiteley, author of The Customer Driven Company, only 4% of dissatisfied customers complain, but 65-90% of them will never buy from you again. Yikes!

2. The ambiguity trap.

It’s next to impossible to write questions that require no clarification for 100% of the survey population. We live in a diverse society, and our own unique circumstances color how we experience the world around us — including how we write survey questions.

3. The interpretation trap.

Researchers can’t accurately interpret every word a customer writes down. They’ll interpret answers based on what they meant by their questions, but customers are individuals; they mean many different things by their answers.

When you rely exclusively on written surveys, you arm yourself with – at best –incomplete information. To quote Whiteley, “you’re asking your customers to paint a picture of their experience but handing them a coloring book and telling them to stay within the lines.”

So what SHOULD you do to collect meaningful information from your customers?

Next time I’ll cover why oral surveys – especially those conducted by a third party – produce far more information. I will also discuss the importance of observing your customers “in the wild” – i.e., interacting with your product or service in the real world – and how to go about it.