Creating a useful customer survey is no easy task, but it's worth pursuing. Few other forms of feedback allow you to gather such a large volume of data so quickly on any set of questions.

While some of our other favorite ways to gather customer feedback focus on active listening during one-on-one sessions with customers, customer surveys offer an opportunity to poll your users on questions that might otherwise go unanswered.

But surveys inherently have a few serious problems, and these issues are only compounded when you create survey questions without a game plan.

Today we’ll look at some proven ways to turn your surveys into a reliable source of insightful customer information!

Creating an Insightful Customer Survey 

Customer surveys have a few glaring problems, but that doesn’t mean they should be dismissed as a useful resource.

Not surprisingly, most of these problems revolve around getting accurate answers from respondents:

  • No matter what you do, research has shown that there will always be a small minority of people who will lie on your survey, especially when the questions pertain to the three B’s: behavior, beliefs or belonging (check out the commentary on this topic from Cornell University).
  • Furthermore, sometimes people will give inaccurate answers totally by accident. Numerous publications have noted that predicting future intentions can be quite difficult, especially when done via survey.

Fortunately, research also offers solutions to these chronic survey problems. A joint study by Zoomerang and the Gallup Group (now published under SurveyMonkey) offers some incredible insights on creating and structuring surveys that can keep these problems to a minimum.

Below, let’s look at the study’s most important takeaways so you can get a clear picture of how to improve your surveys!

1. KISS (Keep It Short, Stupid!)

Applying this spin on the traditional KISS principle is incredibly important for assembling a successful survey.

Your biggest concern here should be with brevity, or in finding the shortest way to ask a question without losing its intent. In other words, it’s not just about reducing the character count; you must eliminate superfluous wording from your questions.

At the same time, overall survey length remains important for keeping abandon rates low. Think about the last time you sat around and excitedly answered a 30-minute survey ... oh, wait—that’s never happened.

2. Ask Only Questions that Fulfill Your End Goal

You need to be ruthless when it comes to cutting unnecessary questions from your surveys.

Every single question that you include should have a well-defined purpose and a strong reason for being included. Otherwise, it should be put on the chopping block.

Sometimes, depending on the survey’s purpose, it won’t matter how a customer first came in contact with your site. If that’s the case, then don’t ask. Do you need to know a customer’s name? If not, again, don’t ask.

Adding in that question you thought couldn’t hurt to ask only adds unnecessary bloat that could send survey takers hunting for the “back” button.

3. Construct Smart, Open-Ended Questions

Although it’s tempting to stick with multiple choice queries and “scales,” some of your most insightful feedback will come from open-ended questions, which allow customers to spill their real thoughts onto the page.

However, nothing makes a survey more intimidating than a huge text box connected to the very first question. It’s best to take on brief questions first to create a sense of progress, and then give survey takers who’ve made it to the closing questions the opportunity to elaborate on their thoughts.

One strategy is to get people to commit to a question with a simple introduction, and then follow up with an open-ended question such as, “Why do you feel this way?”

4. Ask One Question at a Time

We’ve all been hit with a series of questions before: “How did you land on our site? Did you understand what our product did as soon as you hit the page? Why or why not?”

Sheesh! I feel like I’m being interrogated by a guy who won’t let me finish my sentences.

If you want quality responses, you need to give people time to think through each individual question.

Bombarding them with multiple points to consider at once leads to half-hearted answers by respondents just looking to get through to the end (if they even stay with the survey at all!).

Make things easy by sticking to one main point at a time.

5. Make Rating Scales Consistent

Certain common scales used for surveys can become cumbersome and confusing when the context begins to change.

Here’s an example I ran into recently. While answering a survey’s initial questions, I was told to respond by choosing between 1-5, with 1 = “Strongly Disagree” and 5 = “Strongly Agree.”

Later on in the survey, however, I was asked to evaluate the importance of certain items. The problem: Now 1 was assigned as “Most Important” ... but I had been using 5 as the agreeable answer to every previous question!

It was incredibly confusing, and although I realized what was going on, I have to wonder how many people missed this change and gave inaccurate answers.

6. Avoid Leading & Loaded Questions

Questions that lead respondents toward a certain answer due bias in their phrasing are not useful for your surveys.

I love the example that SurveyMonkey lists as a leading question to avoid:

We have recently upgraded SurveyMonkey’s features to become a first-class tool. What are your thoughts on the new site?

This is a clear example of letting your pride in your product get in the way of asking a good question. Instead, the neutral, “What do you think of the recent SurveyMonkey upgrades?” should have been used.

Remember to cut out language that caters to ego or contorts a respondent's understanding of what’s being asked.
 To avoid loaded questions, stay away from any presupposed facts or assumptions.

A well-known example on disciplinary action with children is as follows:

"Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

The assumption here is that smacking a child is inherently a part of “good” parental correction, when in fact that is simply the opinion being argued.

Avoid loaded questions in your surveys by eliminating emotionally charged language that hints at preferences or assumed facts.

7. Make Use of Yes/No

When you are asking a question that has a simple outcome, try to frame the question as a Yes/No option.

The SurveyMonkey study showed that these closed-ended questions make for great starter questions because they are typically easier to evaluate and complete.

These questions can also be used to qualify the respondent with less of an ego bias, such as asking a question like, “Are you considered an expert in _____?” vs. “What level of expertise do you have in _____?”

8. Get Specific and Avoid Assumptions

When you create questions that assume a customer is knowledgeable about certain pieces of information, you’re likely going to run into problems (unless you are surveying a very targeted subset of people).

This obviously references the language and terminology you use in questions, which is why I’d recommend staying away from industry acronyms like PPC or SaaS (and if you don’t know what those are, then I guess I just made my point!).

One of the worst assumptions you can make is to assume people will answer with specific examples or reasoning. It’s better to just ask them to be specific, letting them know you welcome this sort of feedback:

“What do you think about ____? Feel free to get specific; we love detailed feedback!”

9. Timing is Important

Interestingly, the study found the highest survey open and click-through rates occurred on Monday, Friday and Sunday respectively.

There was no discernible difference between the response quality gathered on weekdays versus weekends, either, so your best bet is to seek out survey-takers first thing during a new week or to wait for the weekend.

Perhaps Monday has such high response rates because nobody feels like working!

10. Give them a Bonus!

Entice customers to take your survey: A variety of data show that incentives can increase survey response rates by 5 to 20 percent. These incentives could be a discount, a giveaway or account credit.

A valid fear is that a freebie may detract from the quality of responses, but a few studies show that this isn’t likely to be the case.

Last but not least, in order to ensure that you don’t lose your shirt, be sure to make incentives something you can financially handle, such as the free use of your software for a period of time.

Gregory Ciotti

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is on the marketing team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software. Learn how Help Scout takes the headache out of email support.