Are customer surveys effective?

How you can learn from customer surveys—without overwhelming customers with them.

By Alaura Weaver

Published December 11, 2018
Last updated September 21, 2021

Customer surveys are the norm today. After a support call, companies ask customers for their feedback. Websites bribe visitors with sweepstake entries to get them to fill out product questionnaires.

This flood of feedback requests is leaving many customers with “survey fatigue”—a sense of boredom and resentment around taking surveys. This feeling is lowering survey response rates and quality. Customer Thermometer reports that “only 9% of people take time to answer long surveys thoughtfully.” Nearly 70% say “they have abandoned a survey before finishing it.”

If consumers are tired of customer surveys, should companies continue to send them?

The answer is “yes”—as long as you create surveys with the customer experience in mind.

What are customer surveys?

Customer surveys are a method of getting consumer feedback. They help companies measure satisfaction, perform market research, and gauge expectations.

With this input, you can investigate customers’ motivations. Why do some customers choose to stay with your business, and why do others leave? This information will help you improve your product and strengthen your brand over time.

Surveys don’t just help your company. Customers also appreciate them, as long as you don’t overwhelm them with feedback requests. According to a 2019 Microsoft report, 89% of consumers want companies to ask them for input. To customers, surveys are a sign that you’re willing to listen and learn.

Done well, a customer satisfaction survey is an honest approach to authentically improving customer happiness.

Why customer surveys are worth using

No one wants customer feedback to come at the cost of irritating customers. The key is striking the right balance in how many surveys you send.

Finding this balance is worth it, as there’s a strong business case for customer surveys. Gartner reports that 80% of companies that see year-over-year growth use customer surveys to collect customer experience data. Compare that with just 58% of the non-growth companies that use customer surveys.

And while people claim to hate taking surveys, Microsoft says 77% of consumers see brands more favorably if they seek out and accept customer feedback.

So how can your company navigate asking for feedback without overwhelming your customers?

It’s all in how you approach surveys in the first place. Don’t view surveys as obligatory transactions to collect data. Treat them as opportunities to deepen your relationships with your customers through meaningful experiences.

How to create surveys your customers will actually want to take (with 8 examples)

Make surveys as enjoyable as possible by designing them with your customer in mind. This user-focused approach will help you encourage survey responses and maintain a strong brand image.

1. Clearly define your goal

To get the most value out of your surveys, identify what you hope to learn from the feedback.

First, determine the customer experience touchpoint you want to improve. That might be anything from improving retention to reorganizing your Help Center.

Focus on a single problem. This narrow perspective will also help you stay productive. It’s much more difficult to collect and implement feedback about multiple issues at the same time.

Match your survey method to your goal. You can use a variety of survey types to unlock specific kinds of customer feedback:

  1. Customer satisfaction (CSAT) rating

    Measures how helpful your customer found a support experience to be or how satisfied your customer is with your product or service

  2. Net Promoter Score℠ (NPS) survey

    Measures how likely a customer would be to recommend your product or service to a friend

  3. Churn survey

    Helps you understand why your customer is canceling a service

For a more in-depth look at different ways to collect customer feedback, check out our guide on 3 types of customer feedback (and how to collect them).

2. Write crystal-clear, unbiased questions

According to the Pew Research Center, survey data quality depends on how well your questions are crafted.

A high response rate will be wasted if the responses are based on vague or biased questions. A successful survey means not only writing good questions but also organizing them to create an engaging questionnaire.

With that in mind, aim to write non-leading questions that are easy to understand. Make sure your questions meet these criteria by reviewing this checklist.

  • Could this question be misunderstood? If it’s possible that the customer could read it in multiple ways, adjust your phrasing. Choose words that communicate the question’s intended meaning.
  • Does the question contain confusing terminology? Aim to write for an eighth-grade reading level. Keep your words simple and avoid jargon.
  • What assumptions does this question make? Be aware of your own biases and how they’re expressed through writing. Avoid generalizations and use objective language.
  • Is the wording objectionable? Language evolves as people find new ways of representing themselves. Adapt your phrasing to the standards of the communities you’re describing.
  • Is the wording loaded or slanted? If it seems like the question is forcing the respondent into an answer that doesn’t accurately reflect their opinion, remove non-neutral and unnecessary wording.
  • How personal is the wording? If the question might make your respondent uncomfortable or embarrassed, tweak the wording, so it makes what you’re asking about seem normal or acceptable. Be clear about asking for an opinion versus asking for general statements.

Need question-writing inspiration? We’ve created an excellent collection of customer survey question ideas.

3. Send surveys in relevant channels

Your customers aren’t going to bend over backwards to fill out your survey. Make it as easy as possible for them to send meaningful responses by strategically considering where to send the questionnaire.

Reach your customers in places where they’re already thinking about your products and services:

  • In-product - If you have a digital product, you can automatically trigger a survey prompt after a certain period of usage. If you sell physical goods, you can insert a survey invite into the packaging of the product.

    An example of an in-product survey from Google Meet


  • Website - Find out how visitors feel about their site experience with a one- or two-question embedded survey. Ask about the page’s performance and if there are any areas for improvement.

    An example of a website survey from Hotjar


  • Email - Directly reach your target segment by emailing surveys to highly engaged customers. For tips on writing email survey invitations, check out this resource from MailerLite.

    An example of an email survey invite from Headspace


  • Text - SMS surveys are a quick, convenient, interactive way for customers to review their experiences. You can send surveys via SMS using any number of survey platforms, including integrations with Zendesk.

    An example of an SMS survey invite


  • You’re more likely to get responses if you combine text and email survey invitations. A Gallup survey found that when companies combined text messages with email to send surveys, participation increased across all groups.

    So don’t be afraid to use a combination of survey delivery methods. Sending reminders through different channels—while keeping feedback fatigue in mind—may be the nudge customers need to fill out your survey.

    4. Keep it short

    Sixty percent of people say that they won’t take a survey that takes longer than 10 minutes. So if you want a high response rate, keep your survey brief.

    If your customer has already taken time out of their day to contact you for help, don’t add to the hassle with a cumbersome questionnaire. For customer support scenarios, stick with a one-click survey. When a ticket is closed, ask one survey question only: if the solution was helpful.

    Example of a one-question customer satisfaction survey after a support ticket closes


    Even if you have multiple questions, aim to keep the survey as short as possible. Most surveys should take just a few minutes to complete.

    Set expectations by letting people know how long the survey will take to complete. You can include this information in your survey invite or the opening screen of your survey. It also helps to provide a progress bar, so people can see how many questions they have left to answer.

    5. Offer rewards

    Encourage responses by giving customers an incentive to complete the survey. You might offer a monetary reward—cash, checks, money orders, gift cards, or coupons. Or consider offering a physical gift, like a free pen or notebook.

    Some companies even give charity donations in exchange for survey responses. This is a powerful way to appeal to people who have a strong desire to help others.

    The customer research tool SurveyMonkey donates 50 cents to charity for each response to their Audience market research tool.

    SurveyMonkey page highlighting charity donations


    If you offer donations, pick a charity that aligns with your audience’s interests and your organization’s values.

    6. Provide a variety of questions

    Have you ever abandoned a survey because you couldn’t answer a “required” question? You’re not alone.

    Designing a survey with required questions is risky. Sure, you’ll receive meaningful feedback from the people who do respond. But there’s a good chance your overall response rate will be low because customers were intimidated.

    Collect a wide range of input by making your survey questions optional. After all, it’s better to receive partially filled-out questionnaires from many customers than completed ones from a handful. You’ll have more information to work with when trying to decide how to improve your product and brand.

    An example of a semantic rating question


    It also helps to use a mix of open-ended and closed-ended questions. Try to have more of the latter, so customers can move through your survey quickly. Questions with yes/no, multiple-choice, and rating answer options all take just a few seconds to answer.

    7. Give your customers options

    Give customers control over their survey experience, so they can feel confident in the accuracy of the information they’re giving you.

    • Let customers skip irrelevant questions by making them optional
    • In multiple-choice questions, offer an “Other” option. Let customers write in their answer in their own words.
    • Use inclusive wording and options in demographic questions
    • Let customers offer more details on their answers to closed-ended questions by following up with open-ended questions
    • Let your customers select the channel they wish to take the survey in. Give them the option to set preferences on future surveys or to opt out of survey requests via specific channels.

    Examples of two demographic questions about gender. Question 1 is more restrictive; Question 2 is more inclusive.


    8. Always follow up

    Ultimately, people take time to answer surveys because they want to see that they’ve helped make a difference. Don’t just send an obligatory “thank you” email once they’ve completed your survey—close their curiosity loop by informing survey respondents of the changes you’ve made as a result of their feedback.

    Many companies (including Zendesk) release quarterly or annual reports announcing the learnings from their customer surveys and the changes they’ve made in response.

    An example of an annual customer satisfaction survey report infographic


    To demonstrate their commitment to working alongside their customers to protect consumers’ health, food safety firm Merieux NutriSciences publishes their report as an infographic.

    Other companies, like lead generation platform OptinMonster, send their results to customers via email.

    “Customers feel valued when you tell them the results because they see that you heard them and acknowledged them,” says OptinMonster co-founder Sayed Balkhi. “Plus, if you send them the results, it increases the likelihood they’ll respond to future surveys.”

    Build strong customer relationships with CX-friendly surveys

    At Zendesk, we're big fans of customer surveys because they help us improve in a number of areas—customer satisfaction, marketing, employee productivity, just to name a few. In fact, the insights we gained from customer surveys led us to expand from a humble help desk platform to a unified Support Suite, Sales Suite, and CRM platform.

    Don’t be shy about asking for feedback. Surveys are a powerful resource for finding ways to improve and grow your brand. And if you’re considerate of your customers’ time, they’re often happy to share their input.

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