How to Increase Survey Response Rates by 370%

Andrew Gilliam, ITS Service Desk Consultant

Andrew Gilliam, ITS Service Desk Consultant

Small changes can often lead to big results.

Andrew Gilliam is an ITS Service Desk Consultant at Western Kentucky University. He improved the response rate to customer service surveys by 370 percent simply by changing the wording of the survey invitation email.

I interviewed Gilliam to learn about how he was able to do it. He provides a lot of helpful, actionable advice into this short, 20 minute interview. 

Topics we cover include:

  • Why you should survey both internal and external customers

  • What constitutes a "good" response rate

  • How to improve your survey invitation email

  • What types of customers typically complete surveys

  • Why you need feedback from angry, happy, and even neutral customers 

You can watch the full interview here. Follow Gilliam on Twitter at @ndytg or contact him via his website.

I Took Every Survey For a Week. The Results Weren't Good.

Customers are inundated with surveys.

We get them on receipts, via email, and in the mail. Shop somewhere and you're asked to take a survey. Don't shop somewhere, and a survey still appears. Visit a website and ping!, you get asked to take a survey.

I decided to take a week and do a small experiment. During that week, I would take every single survey I was asked to complete. The idea was to test three things:

  1. How many surveys would I be offered?

  2. Were any of the surveys well-designed?

  3. What was the experience like?

I was asked to complete 10 surveys during the week. That pencils out to over 500 surveys per year! No wonder customers experience survey fatigue.

Only one of the 10 surveys was well-designed. Every other survey had at least one glaring flaw, and most had multiple failures. More on that in a moment.

And what was my experience like? Most of the surveys backfired. The experience was so poor it made me like the company even less.

Person filling out a customer service survey to report a negative experience.

Surveys Are Too Difficult

When you ask a customer to take a survey, you're really asking the customer to do you a favor. A lot of the surveys I took made that favor really difficult.

Just accessing the surveys was a big challenge. 

My first survey request was on a receipt from the post office. The receipt had a QR code that I was able to quickly scan with my phone, but then the survey site itself was not optimized for mobile phones.

A survey from Dropbox wanted me to first read and acknowledge a confidentiality agreement before completing its survey.

Confidentiality agreement required to take the Dropbox survey.

The super odd thing was the confidentiality agreement had it's own survey! This extra bit of aggravation got even more annoying when the survey required me to fill out the comments box to explain my rating of the confidentiality agreement.

Survey requiring a comment.

Back to the first Dropbox survey, I had been working on it for 11 minutes in when I hit an infinite loop. None of the answers to a question applied to me, and it lacked a “Not Applicable” option for this required question. I felt I had put in enough time at that point and just gave up.

The survey invitation from Vons, my local grocery store, was a real piece of work. It was a receipt invitation, but there was no QR code, so I had to manually enter the web address. Then I had to enter a string of numbers along with my email address!

Vons survey invitation page, which requires an email address.

I couldn't complete two surveys due to errors. An email invitation from Chewy linked to a web page that I couldn't get to load. The Human Resources Certification Institute sent me a survey on May 24 that closed on May 23. Completing that survey is pretty low on the list of things I would do if I had access to a time machine.

Poor Survey Design

Beyond being difficult, just one of the ten surveys was designed well enough to provide useful, actionable, and unbiased information.

Many surveys were too long, which often triggers low completion rates. The Dropbox survey advertised it would take 15 minutes. (Who has that kind of time?!) These companies' surveys could easily be redesigned to get better data and higher completion rates from just three questions.

Many were full of leading questions designed to boost scores. This AutoZone survey arranged the rating scale with the positive response first, which is a subtle way to boost ratings. Like many of the surveys I took, there wasn't an option to leave comments and explain why I gave the ratings I did.

AutoZone customer service survey.

The survey from Vons was an odd choose your own adventure survey, where I got to decide which topic(s) I wanted to be surveyed on. 

Screenshot of multi-part customer service survey from Vons.

This created unnecessary friction and generated a little confusion since my biggest gripe on that particular visit was the large number of aisles blocked off by people stocking shelves. Is that a store issue, an employee issue, or a product issue? It’s a great example of where asking a customer to simply give a rating and then explain the rating would quickly get to the core of my dissatisfaction.

The One Good Example

The best survey was a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey from Suunto. 

I received this survey invitation about six months after I registered a new watch on the Suunto website. NPS surveys measure a customer's intent to recommend, so giving me six months to use the watch before asking if I'd recommend it allows enough time for me to know what I like and don't like about the product.

Another positive was it asked just two questions: a rating and a comment. 

Suunto NPS survey.

Short surveys tend to have much higher completion rates than longer ones. Counterintuitively, you can almost always get more useful data from a short survey than a long and tedious survey. (More on that here.)

My question about the Suunto survey was whether the survey was linked to my contact information. This is necessary so someone from Suunto can follow-up with unhappy customers to learn more about the issues they're experiencing. (More on that here.)

Resources to Create Better Surveys

Here are some resources to help you avoid these mistakes and create better surveys.

You can also get step-by-step instructions for creating a great survey program by taking my customer service survey course on LinkedIn Learning.

Why Customer Service is Always Running Late

This wasn't a bucket list item, but it was close.

My favorite winery in Napa was hosting an exclusive winemaker dinner, with another party the following day. My wife, Sally, and I love this winery and it sounded like an amazing weekend.

I signed up for the interest list to get notified when tickets went on sale.

Five weeks went by with no news. I emailed my contact at the winery for an update. She replied a day later, "Tickets go on sale Tuesday." It was Friday.

Tuesday came and went with no notice. I emailed again the following Friday but received no response. On Monday, I called and left a voice mail but still no response.

A day later, my winery contact emailed me. The tickets are finally on sale. It was a week later than she'd promised and too late for us. We'd already made plans with some family members who were visiting from out of town.

Why are customer service professionals constantly running late? Here's a look at the reasons why, plus some potential solutions.

Group of businesswomen running late.

Our Overly Optimistic View of Time

A few months ago, I wrote this post about why employees are often late. A problem occurs when employees are overly optimistic about how long it takes to get things done. 

One of the studies I cited was a 1994 series of experiments conducted by Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross. They wanted to see how accurately people could forecast the time it takes to complete a task.

A group of 37 psychology students were asked to estimate when they would complete their honors thesis. The average estimate was way off.

Days to complete thesis.png

Only 11 of the 37 students finished their thesis by the time they predicted. That means 70 percent of the group was overly optimistic.

The researchers anticipated this optimism problem, so they asked participants to make a second prediction after their first one had been recorded. Participants were asked to imagine everything went as poorly as it possibly could. How long did they think it would take them to complete their thesis given that scenario.

The worst case scenario predictions were still off.

Days to complete thesis - worst case.png

Buehler, Griffin, and Ross ran a second experiment where they asked another group of psychology students to think about a school project that was due within the next two weeks. The subjects were asked to predict when they would get it done. As before, the subjects were overly optimistic, with only 43.6 percent finishing by the predicted time.

There was an additional twist. Subjects were asked to think aloud as they estimated the project completion time, and the experimenters recorded and categorized what people thought about. The results were startling:

  • 71% of the subjects' thinking focused on how they would complete the project.

  • Only 3% of thoughts were spent on anticipating problems.

  • Just 1% of thinking considered problems encountered on previous projects.

That last one amazed me. Participants continuously failed to learn from their experience when making plans to complete a task. It also explains why some employees and companies are consistently late.

How to Meet More Deadlines

There are a few things you can do to meet more deadlines and keep your customers happy.

First, whenever planning a task, start with the deadline and work backwards to create your plan. Buehler, Griffin, and Ross found that having a clear deadline can be very helpful—in one experiment, 80.6 percent of school projects were finished on time when the students had a deadline. 

Try to negotiate the latest mutually agreed-upon deadline to give yourself some extra time. So if you think you can get something done by Thursday, ask if Friday is okay. (More on that technique here.)

Next, think about potential obstacles. Here are some common ones I consider:

  • Travel: My available time is limited when I'm on a plane or with another client.

  • Workload: I consider other projects I'm working on at the same time.

  • Personal: My personal life factors into my availability as well, such as an upcoming vacation.

As you think about each potential obstacle, think about how similar situations have gone in the past. For example, if I'm traveling, I know from experience that I'll likely be too tired to do much on the return flight from a long trip. So I don't count on having that time to work.

Finally, lay out a project plan and track the important milestones as you go. My goal is always to get work done early, because you never know what will come up.

In case you're wondering, I told a few people I was working on this post. My promised delivery date was next week. And now I'm early.

How Incentives Can Crush Motivation to Do the Right Thing

Paul was feeling pretty good about his new incentive program.

He had devised a game for the cashiers he managed where the cashiers on each shift were placed on teams. Throughout the month, he would randomly select cashiers to observe using the same criteria that the company's mystery shoppers used. The cashier's mystery shopping score would be added to their team's total, and the team with the highest score at the end of month would receive a bonus.

The cashiers loved it the first month. It did okay in month two, though performance slipped a little. By month three, Paul started wondering if he needed to do something new or scrap the game altogether.

That's when he noticed the problem he had unintentionally created. The cashiers who won now expected the bonus to do their jobs. The cashiers who didn't win performed even worse than they did before the contest was created.

Paul tried unsuccessfully to come up with a new incentive program, but service didn't get any better. Then he tried scrapping it altogether and service got even worse. 

His experienced revealed a dark secret of incentives: they crush motivation.

Smug employee demanding more money.

Money Kills Motivation

In 1971, Edward Deci ran a groundbreaking experiment on the use of incentives.

He recruited students for what they believed was a study about problem solving. Each student attended three, one-hour sessions where they tried to solve four different puzzles using a Soma cube, a puzzle toy consisting of seven pieces that can be assembled into different configurations. An experimenter was in the room ostensibly to time how long it took subjects to solve each puzzle.

The real experiment was a test of intrinsic motivation. During each one-hour session, the experimenter left the room for eight minutes and instructed the subjects to do whatever they liked. This was in the pre-smartphone era, so the options were:

  • Play with the puzzles

  • Read one of the magazines placed in the room

  • Do nothing

Deci placed the subjects into an experimental and control group. The first session for both groups was identical, but there was a twist in the second session. The people in the experimental group were given $1 for each puzzle they solved. This meant they could earn the equivalent of $25 (adjusted for inflation) by solving all four puzzles during the hour. 

In the third session, neither group was paid, just like session one. 

The real test was to see how much of their free time each group would spend playing with puzzles in round three. Here were the results:

Graph showing the time spent working on puzzles.

The experimental group spent less time on the puzzles after they had previously been paid while the control group spent more time. This shows the motivation to play with puzzles decreased after an incentive was introduced, but increased when there was never any incentive.

Thinking back to the manager, Paul, and his cashiers, Deci's experiment helps explain why the incentive program did little to improve service. 

Incentives Create Bad Behavior

There's more at stake than just poor service. Incentives often cause bad behavior.

According to Nate, a former support team leader, contests can easily demotivate employees. "We used to try to do little competitions between agents. It just never worked. One or two would go all in and immediately turn off everyone else, who just would not participate."

Beth, a customer support manager, told me "We would occasionally do a ticket blitz that came with prizes, but it had a hard end date and was, frankly, mostly about volume at that point." 

Many companies offer incentives to employees who get good survey scores. The scores might go up, but often through manipulation and gaming the system rather than better service. If you've ever experienced someone pleading with you to give them a "10" on the survey, you've seen this in action.

A lot of companies tie incentives to revenue generation, which can also go badly. This example comes from Erica. "We had a month-long dialing contest to encourage new business development. The idea was that the salesperson who made the most calls in any given week would be eligible for a prize. Some of the salespeople started making random calls to ridiculous places to get their tally up. I don't think we landed a single new piece of business that month."

The list of egregious behaviors goes on:

  • Entering fake surveys to boost scores

  • Creating false accounts to earn sales incentives

  • Pressuring customers to avoid account cancellations

  • Closing service tickets before the issue is solved to increase productivity

  • Hanging up on customers to keep talk time low

These are just a few examples. You can find even more stories of incentives creating the wrong behaviors in my book, Getting Service Right.

Take Action

Managers often ask me how they can possibly motivate their employees without incentives.

The answer might surprise you—if you hire right, your employees are naturally motivated! Most customer service professionals truly want to do a good job.

The key is to make it easy for your employees to do the right thing and take care of their customers. You can learn more and see examples in this webinar I facilitated with Five9's Darryl Addington and ICMI's Erica Marois.

Lessons From The Overlook: Stick to Your Core

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.

I haven’t written about The Overlook in awhile. That’s because my wife, Sally, and I have been working on a big change that we’re finally ready to announce.

We’re selling the cabin.

It was a difficult decision in some ways. We really like the cabin and we've put a lot of time, money, and effort into making it nice. Revenue is looking good this year, and the cabin was rented every weekend in May.

Yet the decision came fast when the moment was right to make it. We know we're doing the right thing because we're sticking to our core. 

Here's how we made the decision and how our process can help you make your next strategic move. 

The Overlook cabin in Idyllwild, California.

Know Your Core

Your core is the reason your business exists.

For small businesses, it might be your passion. Perhaps you started a wedding photography company because you love taking pictures. Or you spent years playing with recipes in your kitchen before opening a bakery.

The core can be tougher to find when a business grows larger and you have employees. Larger organizations often define the core through a mission statement. Some use a customer service vision, which is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page.

What's our core at The Overlook? 

Sally and I wanted a mountain retreat. We love hiking in the mountains or just relaxing under a tall tree while soaking in big views and clean air. Property is expensive in Southern California, so we decided to turn the cabin into a vacation rental to help finance the cost of ownership.

Discussion question: What's your business's core?

Use Your Core to Make Decisions

Business leaders face a lot of difficult challenges every day.

Too many are based on theory alone—"I think this will work"—with no data to support it. Other decisions are backed by financials or other good data, but it's still hard to say for certain what's the right move.

That's where your core comes in. It acts as a compass to point you in the right direction.

The real estate market in Idyllwild has been heating up lately. Several real estate professionals have told us we could make a nice profit by selling our cabin. We ran the numbers and it seems they're right.

So we put it up for sale. You can see the listing here.

The decision wasn't too difficult because we stuck to our core. While we love The Overlook, it's too big for just Sally and me. The cabin has three bedrooms plus a loft bedroom and three bathrooms. It's usually just us, our dog, and maybe one other couple who visit the cabin, so that represents a lot of unused real estate for us personally.

In other words, the cabin doesn’t fully align with our core.

Our plan is to sell The Overlook, reinvest in a smaller cabin that better suits us, and pocket the profits. We still plan on turning the new cabin into a vacation rental, so we're not shutting down the business.

We never would have made that decision if we looked at our business as this particular cabin, rather than a more expansive view of why we started the business in the first place.

Discussion question: Think about a difficult business decision you have to make. What choice is most aligned with your core?

Take Action

It's easy to lose sight of your core.

Let's say your wedding photography company starts to expand. Your first love is taking pictures, but now you spend most of your time managing logistics. And if you're really honest with yourself, you love photography but not particularly bridal photography. Uh oh.

It's even worse if you work for a company. The company many not have a clear core, or it might not match yours. Or things just change over time in an endless pursuit of what's next. Work just becomes a serious of tasks, like in this example.

You can change that with a simple exercise:

  1. Reflect on your company's core. (If you're an employee, does it match yours?)

  2. What are you doing when you are fully aligned with the core?

  3. What would you be doing if you were aligned with the core more often?

I was lucky to learn the lesson of sticking to your core many years ago while working for a nonprofit. We were running a fundraiser that was very profitable, but pulled away from our core. Funding and impact both improved dramatically when we refocused.

Sally and I are excited about what happens next. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.