Five Characteristics of a Powerful Customer Survey

Customer are constantly getting pummeled with survey requests.

We get them via email. They pop up when we visit a website. The auto mechanic pulls us aside after an oil change and begs us for a 10.

A 2016 study from Interaction Metrics found that more than 80 percent of America's top retailers offered a customer survey on purchase receipts. The study also found that most surveys were total garbage.

Most customer service leaders I know are concerned about their surveys. They recognize customers get too many. Leaders also aren't certain what to do with the data they're collecting.

This post aims to solve that problem. 

Below are five characteristics of a powerful customer survey. Use them to put your existing survey to the test. And, if you want more help, I'm willing to do an evaluation of your existing survey at no cost or obligation (details at the end of the post).

#1 Purpose

Always start with why. Understand why you want to survey your customers. Whenever possible, be specific.

Customer service leaders typically respond by saying, "We want to collect feedback." That's not enough. It doesn't provide clear direction because there's no action involved.

Here's a better reason I recently heard from a customer service leader:

Customer retention is a key driver of our company's success. We want to use our survey to help pinpoint the causes of customer churn.

See the difference? A clear purpose will help you use the survey to drive action.


#2 Choose the Correct Format

There's a lot of debate around which type of survey is best. Here are the three most popular:

  • Customer Satisfaction (CSAT): measures customer satisfaction with a product, service, or transaction.
  • Net Promoter Score (NPS): measures a customer's likelihood to recommend your product or service.
  • Customer Effort Score (CES): measures how easy it was for a customer to resolve their issue.

So here's a secret: there's no single survey type that's best!

Choosing the wrong survey type can yield less helpful data, so it's important to choose the correct survey type to match your goal.

A municipal utility probably shouldn't use an NPS survey because they have a monopoly on their service so generating positive word-of-mouth isn't the goal. The utility would be better off using a CES survey to find ways to serve their customers more efficiently.

Here's a primer that can help you decide which survey is best for your situation.


#3 Ask the Right Questions

A survey is only as useful as the questions it contains.

Most surveys contain too many questions. Those questions are frequently poorly designed and do little to reveal useful information.

You can ask better questions if you keep a few things in mind:

  • What's your purpose for doing the survey? (See #1 above)
  • What type of survey are you using? (See #2 above)
  • What will you do with the data?

If you don't know what you will do with the answer to a question, there's no need to ask it. In fact, I challenge my clients to use just three questions whenever possible:

  1. How would you rate (product, service, experience)?
  2. Why did you give that rating? (open text response)
  3. May we follow-up with you if we have additional questions?I challenge my clients to 

This short explainer reveals the rationale behind each of these questions (and why you usually don't need any more).


#4 Make Your Survey Easy

Offering a survey is really asking a customer to do you a favor.

The easier you make your survey, the more likely your customer is to do you that favor and to feel okay doing it. This means your surveys should follow a few simple principles:

  • Easy to access
  • Offered in a timely manner
  • Easy (and quick) to complete

A 2011 study from SurveyMonkey found that survey completion rates drop 5-20 percent once a survey takes 7+ minutes to complete. The same study discovered that's usually around 10 questions.


#5 Take Action

The number one survey gripe I hear from customers is the survey doesn't matter. 

Truthfully, they're usually right. Studies consistently show the vast majority of survey feedback is never acted upon.

You need to use surveys to drive improvement if you want to avoid wasting your customers' time. That means analyzing the data for trends and identifying opportunities for improvement.

Your survey serves no purpose if you're not doing that.



Here are a few more resources to help you improve your existing customer survey or implement a new one.

Training Video: Using Customer Surveys to Improve Service

If you don't have a subscription to either source, you can get a 30-day trial account by dropping my name.

You might also want to check out my customer service survey resource page.

Finally, here's my offer to review your survey:

Send your survey as a link or PDF file to jeff [at] toistersolutions [dot] com by June 30, 2017. In your email, answer these three questions:

  1. What is your objective for this survey?
  2. How are you offering the survey? (Ex: via email to customers who contact you)
  3. What are you doing with the survey data?

I'll respond with notes about your survey's strengths and some suggestions for improvement.

Lessons From The Overlook: Experience Your Customers' Experience

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

Guest experience was initially a blind spot at The Overlook.

When we bought the property last October, our property manager did a property walk-through with us and gave her assessment. That was helpful, but we didn't have a lot of data other than that.

How were we going to find out what our guests liked or disliked? Or how we could make their stay align with our customer service vision, Welcome to your mountain community retreat?

Most people would default to a guest survey. We did that (through our property manager), but we also used two techniques that are arguably more powerful in this situation: experience and observation.

Here's what we did and how you can use these concepts, too.


Experience Your Product or Service

The first thing we did when we bought The Overlook was spend a weekend.

The house was already a vacation rental and it was sold turnkey, which meant it came fully furnished. What we didn't know was whether those furnishings were adequate.

You can learn a lot when you experience your product or service the way a customer would. For example, it might be easy to miss a few burned out lightbulbs if you weren't relaxing at the dining table underneath your faux-antler chandelier.

So we tried to experience everything a guest would experience. We slept in each bedroom, used each bathroom, cooked in the kitchen, watched TV, and used the internet. We even brought our dog to see how comfortable she would be.

This experience allowed us to experience The Overlook the way a guest would experience it. We might not represent every guest, but we could still use empathetic insight to imagine what guests might like and what they probably wouldn't.

Then we made a list of everything we felt was sub-par and made improvements. We went back a few times over the next several weeks to make updates and complete some minor repairs. 

A few weeks later, we returned once again. This time we booked our stay through our property manager's website. We wanted to experience the entire reservation process and then see what it was like when The Overlook was prepped for guests.

It's amazing how many small things you can discover this way. For example, we noticed we often had to find creative ways to store leftovers after cooking a meal. We figured our guests would feel the same way, so we added some extra tupperware to the kitchen.

Lesson Learned: Try mystery shopping your own business so you can experience a product or service the way a customer would. You might notice opportunities for improvement from a whole new perspective.


Observe How Customers Use Your Product or Service

Another exercise we did was to visit The Overlook several times immediately after guests checked out.

Our timing was critical because our property manager inspects the property after each stay and then sends a cleaning crew in to clean the house so it's ready for the next guests.

Our goal was to see the cabin before the inspection. We wanted to see it exactly our our guests left it. In particular, we looked for four things:

  • What was dirty?
  • What was moved?
  • What was damaged?
  • What was missing?

This exercise gave us insight into how our guests used the cabin. Here are some examples:

We got clues about how guests used the kitchen by what was dirty and what had been moved from it's original location. This helped us better organize and stock the kitchen.

One particular vase was always moved from its original location. This signaled to us that it was in our guests' way. They were likely moving it to make more room for their stuff, so we just removed it completely.

Plates and glasses sometimes get damaged, too. Some guests will notify our property manager, but other guests will try to hide the damaged dish in a cupboard or fail to mention a broken glass. Looking for those items allows us to replace them.

Lesson Learned: Observe how your guests use your product or service. You'll almost certainly gain insight that you'd never get from a survey.



It's always good to have data from multiple sources. We look at our guest survey data and combine it with our experience and observation data. 

For instance, our guest observations tell us that the typical guest uses 75-100% of the bath towels. That's not surprising since we provide eight sets of towels, our max capacity is eight, and we tend to get a lot of groups that size.

Our survey revealed that guests would like even more towels because they often shower after a sweaty hike and then use the hot tub later in the evening. Using the same towel more than once in a day get leave it feeling a bit soggy.

We're working on that one now.

Transforming a Customer Service Culture in Manufacturing

The post-sale experience is a giant opportunity for many manufacturers.

Let's say you buy a refrigerator. Buying an appliance like that is a big investment that should last a long time, but there are many reasons you might need support.

  • Registering the refrigerator for warranty support.
  • The water filter needs to be changed every six months.
  • A few years down the road, you might need a new part or a repair.

A manufacturer that can provide exceptional after-sale support in all of these areas can add plenty of additional revenue:

  • Customers will remain loyal and provide positive word-of-mouth.
  • The brand will earn recurring revenue from parts.
  • The brand can earn additional revenue from extended warranties and service plans.

I recently partnered with Ashok Kartham, CEO of Mize, to facilitate a webinar on how to transform a customer service culture into one that consistently delivers these results.

About Mize

Mize enables durable goods manufacturers to better serve customers throughout the customer journey. The goal is a seamless customer experience through various critical moments. For example:

  • Warranty registration
  • Ordering parts
  • Scheduling service
  • Handling returns
  • Managing service plans

Mize serves a wide range of industries including appliances, automotive, and heavy equipment.


The Webinar

Kartham kicked things off by sharing some of the benefits manufacturers can achieve by offering a seamless customer experience. He cited several examples where companies leveraged Mize's suite of products to stay better connected to customers and drive greater loyalty and revenue.

Next, I shared three steps that brands can take to develop a customer-focused culture:

  1. Create a customer service vision.
  2. Engage employees with the vision.
  3. Align the business around the vision.

We wrapped-up the webinar with an extensive Q&A, tackling questions on a wide-range of topics such as gaining executive buy-in and leveraging technology to enhance a service culture.

Mize generously offered an Amazon Kindle copy of my book, The Service Culture Handbook, to all webinar participants. The book provides step-by-step guidance for implementing a customer-focused culture.

You can watch the full webinar here.



Here are a few resources to help you transform the customer service culture in your organization:

How Shake Shack Stands for Something Good

It was 10:55am and there was already a line.

I was standing outside Shake Shack's Theatre District location in New York City with my friend, Jenny Dempsey. She was working nearby at the time and I was in town for a conference, so this was a rare opportunity to meet up. 

Jenny co-authors the fabulous Customer Service Life blog, which meant we naturally had to visit a place that offers outstanding customer service. Jenny suggested Shake Shack, but warned that we needed to get there early. "Tables fill up fast," she said.

The employees' friendliness immediately struck me when the doors opened at 11. They smiled, looked you in the eye, and seemed genuinely happy. The restaurant quickly crowded, but that friendliness must have been contagious, because guests were friendly, too.

Oh, and the burgers were as delicious as advertised.

It was a great introduction to a restaurant chain that was already legendary in New York City and was rapidly expanding. But I left wondering how a busy fast-casual chain could create an oasis of friendliness and welcome in the heart of New York City.

As I later learned, it all starts with vision.

That's Al Roker in the bottom right corner, getting ready to hand out samples of his Roker Burger to Shake Shack customers in Madison Square Park.

That's Al Roker in the bottom right corner, getting ready to hand out samples of his Roker Burger to Shake Shack customers in Madison Square Park.

Meet The Roker Burger

On my second visit to Shake Shack, I took my mother-in-law, Mabeth, and my wife, Sally. 

The three of us were touring New York City and I wanted them to experience the phenomenon. We decided to visit the original location in Madison Square Park.

Just like my first visit, the employees were friendly and engaging. We also had an extra treat in store for us this time. A film crew was setting up in the park.

We soon learned it was a Today Show film crew. 

Al Roker appeared and began filming a segment. He had teamed up with Shake Shack to create a unique hamburger called The Roker Burger. We watched as Roker went through the line handing out samples and conducting a taste test. 

It was a great New York City moment. We enjoyed tasty burgers, received friendly and engaging service, and saw a celebrity filming a segment for a television show. I even used up a few seconds of my 15 minutes of fame when I appeared in the background of the clip. (At 2:33)

The Roker Burger ended up raising $20,000 for No Kid Hungry


The Shake Shack Vision

All of the things I described in my experiences come from Shake Shack's customer service vision, Stand For Something Good.

A customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding service that guides the actions of all employees throughout the company.

This vision is evident in everything Shake Shack does.

Restaurant locations are carefully selected and designed to become part of the local neighborhood. Prospective employees are screened for friendly, outgoing attitudes, and then given constant encouragement to connect with guests. Food is carefully sourced to maintain quality and then prepared with an exacting process to ensure a consistent taste. Employees are given extensive training and then empowered to create great guest experiences.

Even the Roker Burger fits the vision. 

For Shake Shack, part of Stand For Something Good includes donating to local charities and organizing company volunteers to help feed the hungry, mentor kids, and clean up parks in the community.


The Secret of Alignment

Shake Shack is featured in Chapter 5 of The Service Culture Handbook because the company emulates the concept of alignment so well.

Yes, Shake Shack's customer-focused culture starts with the Stand For Something Good vision. You can use this guide to create a vision for your organization or team.

But the vision becomes real by aligning all aspects of company operations around it. While most organizations struggle to implement a vision because leaders treat it like a side project, Shake Shack's leadership has made the vision a central part of every decision.

You can test your organization or team's alignment using this simple assessment.

The results can help you start the conversation internally about where to start improving customer-focus and employee engagement.

How to Empathize With Customers 

The airline passenger was angry about missing her flight.

It was her fault. She had been sitting at the bar a short distance from the gate and lost track of time. Those things happen in Las Vegas.

Our emotions often rise up to protect our ego, so she looked for someone to blame. The first gate agent she talked to explained the airline's boarding policies and maintained that he had made several boarding announcements. It was a perfectly rational and reasonable explanation, but it wasn't the validation she wanted. So the passenger exploded—ranting, raving, and cursing.

Another gate agent calmly took her aside.

He listened patiently as she told her story. He didn't try to argue with her or make her feel stupid. The gate agent used the partner technique to shift his body language so it was non-adversarial. He listened.

Then he simply said, "I can understand why you're angry. You shouldn't have to feel this way." 

The passenger quickly calmed down and thanked him. She accepted an offer to get re-booked on a later flight.

The gate agent accomplished this minor service miracle through empathy.

Empathy Defined

Empathy is a core skill in customer service.

Customers often experience negative emotions. When that happens, the rational part of our brain cedes control and can't function properly. Everything stops until those emotions cool down.

Empathy is the magic that can take angry customers out of the red. Here's how defines empathy:

the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

When you empathize with a customer, it makes the customer feel better. Notice the airline gate agent wasn't agreeing with the passenger. He didn't say, "You're right, we should have sent someone to find you in the bar." What he did communicate was "I understand how you feel, and it's okay to have those feelings." He then took steps to help her feel better.

Of course, this is what makes empathy so difficult.

How do you empathize with someone you can't relate to? Unless you've missed a flight because you've lost track of time in a bar at the Las Vegas airport, it feels like a stretch to put yourself in this woman's shoes. 

Fortunately, there is a technique you can use.


Three Steps to Empathy

Here's a technique I've taught customer service professionals for many years.

Step 1: Consider why the customer is truly angry. For the airline passenger, there were three issues. She was stressed about missing her flight and being inconvenienced by a delay. She was embarrassed that she caused the issue. And she was upset about the lack of empathy from the first gate agent.

Step 2: Think about a time you felt the same way. Try to imagine a situation where you were angry or embarrassed about something that was your fault. We've all done something stupid. It may not have been missing a flight, but it was something.

Step 3: Use that experience to identify with your customer's feelings. When we feel angry and embarrassed, the last thing we want is to hear is its our fault. (That's the mistake the first gate agent made.) We want someone to tell us they hear us, that we're not so dumb after all, and that they would be happy to help us fix it.

This isn't an easy technique. I've seen many seasoned customer service professionals struggle with it. But think of the accomplishment if you can master it!

That airline gate agent used empathy to de-escalate what was quickly becoming a scene. He didn't just make himself look good, he represented his airline well.

And the passenger?

Some opportunistic by-stander swooped in and told her he saw the whole thing. He too empathized with her situation and then offered to buy her a drink at the bar.

That's Vegas for you.