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How To Conduct An Online Survey and Engage Customers In A Dialog

When asked directly, customers often hedge the truth of their opinions. Maybe they do not want to insult you. Or they've been brought up to accentuate the positive. Or they talk your ear off. However, in a focus group with a good facilitator the same customers often will talk in detail about how to improve your product or services.

Online surveys can replicate this focus group effect. An online survey can provide a safe place for your customers to share their responses, opinions, and ideas, especially if they complete the survey in a comfortable place such as their office or at home. The Internet provides anonymity and ease of use to help customers speak freely.

Setting up an effective online survey does not have to be expensive or complicated. In fact, if your goals are modest, it can cost you only your time. Many businesses do not need the elaborate precision required for formal surveys. It is enough to ask a chosen group of customers what they think about a product or service. This article describes how to set up an online survey that will meet the basic needs of most businesses.

The Survey Process

To create and run a survey, you will need to work through these steps:

  • Define your goals
  • Pick your tools
  • Write your questions
  • Test your survey
  • Deploy your survey
  • Measure your results

The rest of this article will describe these steps in greater detail.

Define Your Goals

When you sit down to plan your survey, your first task is to determine whether or not you need help. If you need to ask hundreds or thousands of customers about their preferences and you want accuracy within 5% or less, then you should spend money to hire a good research firm. There is enough complexity and skill involved in running this sort of survey that experts are needed. This article will help educate you about the process but it is not a substitute.

However, if you sense that customers are responding poorly to some part of your business, for example, customer service, and your goal is to get your customers to vent in useful ways, then running your own survey probably will work fine. The question is what level of precision you need from your results. In many cases, extreme precision is not required. It is enough for you to offer your customers the opportunity to speak out about existing or new products and/or services.

Once you have an idea about whether to do your survey yourself or hire experts, the next issue to address is what you want to achieve with your survey. If you don't know, start by writing down what you would like customers to tell you about your business, products, and services. Then prioritize that list. On another sheet of paper, write down a list of questions you have about your business and prioritize your list. If you have time, you also should write up a list of customer ideas and complaints that you have heard in the past year. Put these lists side by side and look for commonalities in subject and priority.

This list writing process often will pull out ideas and issues that lie just under the surface. For example, a customer comment might give you an idea about how to improve a product. If that product is extremely important to your business, a survey might help you understand how to improve it. (So would paper mockups as part of usability testing but that is another article.) Or you might decide to use periodic surveys as a way to add a customer feedback channel and so your list might be a series of small topics. Or you might realize that a competitor product is your biggest worry and you wonder if your customers care about their features (and which features, and with what priority).

Pick Your Tools

When you have picked one or two goals for your survey, the next step is to consider tools. You either can host the software yourself or use a vendor. My recommendation is to start with a vendor. This will reduce the complexity of your first survey and help you to focus on your goals, the quality of your questions, and other issues more important than technology.

There is at least one robust online survey vendor: eSurveysPro.com. There are a number of services that offer polling but this vendor offer a broad range of question types, data output, and ease of use for small amounts of money. eSurveysPro is free.

The criteria for choosing a tool or vendor should depend on your goals. While it is great to have a wide range of question types available for use, for example, too many types of questions will overwhelm your customers. So a broad range of question types does not mean you should use every one. It simply allows you to pick the types you'll need when you set up your survey.

In addition to checking for a broad set of question types, you should ensure that you can control your data by downloading it at any time day or night. You should ask the vendor how they secure their data so that your questions and results are not shared with others. Ideally your data should be stored on a server separate from the survey application and it should be isolated through firewalls and other techniques. The vendor also should have a daily backup for your data and the ability to roll back to a previous version if needed.

You also might ask if your survey vendor software allows branching, automatically leading your customer to the next question if they answer a certain way on one question. If the customer answers "yes," for example, they would be jumped down to the next question and not confronted with questions related to answering "no." That said, while branching is useful and cool, it can be a sign of poorly worded questions, as described below. Needless branching can confuse your customers and waste their precious time.

Other criteria to consider with tools is the ability to define easily the text that appears before, during, and after your survey. You also want to control where your customers go when they complete your survey. Ideally, you want to send them to a thank you page on your website rather than dump them at the home page of the survey vendor.

Write Your Questions

How to write survey questions can be more complicated than you might think, but not impossible to work through. You will need to consider at least three issues:

  • Types of questions
  • Wording of questions
  • Order of questions

Questions, for example, can be open ended or closed. You either ask your customers to write a response (open ended) or select from a defined set of possible answers (closed). Ideally, most of your questions should be closed because the survey will go more quickly with less chance that a customer will become tied down answering one question then abandon your survey. Closed questions also yield more uniform responses when you measure your results.

There are also at least these types of questions to consider when you write your questions:

  • Multiple choice questions offer a limited range of possible answers, either one or multiple responses per question.
  • Matrix questions that allow the customer to rate a range of products or services by a single set of possible responses.
  • Open ended questions that allow the customer to type in their response.

These three types of questions have numerous permutations. eSurveysPro, for example, offers a dozen different question types based on these three basic types. For example, you can have a multiple choice question that lets the customer choose from a dropdown list, a vertical (up/down) list of choices, or horizontal (left/right) choices. This may seem cosmetic but dropdown lists might retard participation because the customer may not see the question. And a horizontal list of choices might make your survey appear shorter than if the same choices are laid out vertically across the page and under the question.

How you word survey questions is another important aspect to writing survey questions. While common sense rules apply (short sentences with familiar words are better than convoluted sentences with unusual words), here are some guidelines to follow as you write survey questions:

  • Avoid double negatives, abbreviations, acronyms, and relax your grammar as needed.
  • Avoid leading questions, be neutral in how you phrase your questions.
  • Look for questions that should be broken into two or more parts. If you have the conjunction "and" in a question, chances are you can break the question into two or more questions. Long questions are another candidate for breaking into smaller, more pointed questions.
  • Use consistent rating scales, for example, use 1-5 for bad to good on all questions with rating scales instead of 1-4 for one question, 1-10 for another question, and 1-6 for a third question.
  • When a question begins with or uses "if," consider rewriting to avoid branching (having customers skip down some number of questions to get to the next relevant question). If branching cannot be avoided, be sure to use text (headlines, questions, and descriptions) to clearly lead your customer to the next point in the survey.
  • Where possible, provide multiple choice responses instead of asking customers to distribute their ratings across multiple categories. Asking "which of these choices best describe your response" is more efficient and less frightening to deal with than "tell us which of these choices is most important to you in terms of percentages (must equal 100%)."
  • For multiple choice responses, prune your list to 2-5 choices in most cases and responses to no more than a half dozen words where possible.
  • Look for questions that require recall and rewrite them to minimize how much your customers have to recall since memories are often difficult to recall, especially if people are in a hurry while completing your survey.
  • Consider use of the third person for challenging and threatening questions. For example, ask "How do your friends respond to losing this benefit?" instead of "How do you respond to losing this benefit?" As with any rule, it depends upon the expected response of your customers and the overall flow of your survey.
  • Use consistent phrase structures in your questions and answers to improve the overall flow and tie together different elements of your survey. For example, if appropriate, begin all responses with verb phrases instead of alternating randomly between starting responses (or questions) with verb, noun, adjective, and adverb phrases.
  • Your last edit with each question should be to pose and answer two questions: What will I learn from this question? Will what I learn be useful to my business?

Here's one example that shows how to edit and polish your questions. Say you want to know which day of the week works best to deliver product or services to your customer. You could ask, "Which days work best for you to receive Product X?" However, this is a leading question: it presumes your customer wants Product X. It would be better to break this one question into two questions, at least. Do you want to receive Product X? and If you want to receive Product X, which days work best for you? Then you might add a third question, "If you do not want to receive Product X, please give your reasons" with multiple choice responses and/or an open ended question they can use to type a unique answer.

Finally, in writing your survey questions, consider how you order the questions in your survey. Placing your most difficult questions up top risks turning off your customers which leads to them abandoning your survey. Here are some guidelines to follow as you order your survey questions:

  • Lead with interesting questions that entice your customers to respond.
  • Demographic and other easy to comprehend questions are a scarce resource that can help lead your customer into your survey. They also can be used to pace the survey if placed between more difficult questions, as a way to help your customer through your survey.
  • Use logical order. For example, if questions are related, be sure they're in an order that makes sense to your customer. Move from the general to the specific. Be aware if answering one question make a customer likely to respond differently when they arrive at another question later in the survey; in that case, the questions probably should be grouped together and ordered to make best sense.
  • Look for dead ends and transitions and make sure they're smoothed over with text (headlines, questions, and descriptions) that bridges these sections of your survey.

Test Your Survey

Once you have written your survey questions, the next step is to test your survey with a small group of customers. The size of this group should be at least 5-8 customers; in usability testing, often this number of people are enough to identify the key issues. While you can test your survey online, it probably will work best in person with a printout of the survey. Your goal is to understand how your customers are likely to respond to each question, the inner dialog that will be triggered by reading each of your questions. This dialog is impossible to capture online. Instead, you need to be able to ask your test audience how they responded to each question, what words, phrases, and sentences confused them, what worked and what failed.

Testing also is critical because you should never change your survey once it is put up and advertised. Changing questions in mid-survey will distort your results, creating two surveys. Your goal is to ensure that the results you get the first time are adequate for your needs.

Deploy Your Survey

Posting your questions to eSurveysPro and building your survey is a fairly straightforward process. You set up a survey and define your parameters (for example, where does the customer go when they complete the survey), then build your questions one by one. You should take the survey at least once to ensure it works as you need.

The next step is to announce your survey to the audience you want to have participate and ensure maximum participation. The best way to ensure you get the minimum responses you need is to advertise to more people than you need. If you need 100 responses, try to advertise to 200 of your customers. This is not a precise science so you will need to track what percent of customers notified actually respond.

I would recommend that, whenever possible, you invite customers in person to participate, as part of an ongoing conversation. Call up the customers you need, explain the benefit to them and to you, ask if they need anything to help them participate, then email them the URL for your online survey.

You also need to be aware of other conflicts that limit participation: date and time of the week, the environment where the test is to be taken, holidays, and similar constraints. For example, if your customers are businesses, sending notice of your survey on Monday morning is probably less effective than Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday late morning, times when your customers are less likely to be dealing with weekend backlog and/or the day's first mail and emails.

If you put your survey up for an extended period of time, you also should send follow up emails to remind customers who have not responded. This can be in the form of email, mentions during sales and phone calls, publishing the survey URL in fliers or other printed materials, and other means.

Measure Your Results

Because the survey process described in this article is not statistically rigorous, you will want to look for certain details in your survey responses. Instead of precise quantifiable results within a margin of error, you want to find strong responses that indicate a solid set of your customers respond in a particular way. You also want to find the unexpected responses, for example, customer comments that raise issues you had not considered.

If you have designed, written, and tested your survey well, you will find that your results are often very clear in their message. You may not have the confidence gained if you surveyed thousands of customers who had been scientifically selected to minimize bias. But you will know more than you might think.

Final Thoughts: To Pay or Not To Pay For Participation?

While online surveys can help your customers to provide their responses to your business products and services, they also can be useful tools to build customer confidence in your business. People appreciate being asked for their ideas if participation is not too difficult. That's why I recommend that you view an online survey as a structured dialog with your customers. Where possible be sure to work with customers in person as you design and test your survey. Be sure to thank them afterwards for their participation.

Which leads to a final thought about compensation. Many surveys pay people who respond. Whether your pay or not should depend on your budget. But there are other ways to pay, with discounts, for example. Even providing tangible responses that show you listened to a customer also count as compensation: you've made their life easier. Don't assume that money is the only compensation. Payment should be handled in context of your overall conversations with customers.

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