There is no better way to find out what’s on the mind of your customers than to ask them. But asking them isn’t as simple as you might think. We’re going to spend some time talking about the best practices for customer surveys. You’ll find out how to get the information that you need, without asking loaded questions, boxing yourself in, or driving people away from answering.
Why Do Survey Questions Matter?
When you work inside of a business, it’s often hard to see that business as your customers do. So when you’re relying on answers from your customers to help guide business decisions, getting unbiased responses is critical. There are many best practices to keep in mind when writing your questions, and no one resource is going to cover them all. That said, we can help to make sure you’re on the right track.
With survey questions, what you ask is equally important as how you ask it. For example, let’s look at this question from YouTube:
Asking an opinion and giving a five-point scale is great. But you have to weigh the choices on either side of the center equally in order to have valuable responses.
Survey questions matter for two reasons that are equally important:
- The answers to those questions can help your business to make informed decisions about what customers want.
- Bad questions, or questions asked in the wrong way, can lead to bad decisions.
With those facts in mind, we’re going to spend some time looking at the questions you should ask, how you should ask them, and also the questions that you should avoid. We’ll start with how things should look, because sometimes the easiest way to see when something is wrong is to know what it looks like when it is right.
How to Write Survey Questions
This is one of those beautiful areas in life that is a mix of art and science. When writing your survey questions, you need to think about how else the reader might interpret the meaning. You don’t have the luxury of explaining what you mean, so it’s important to break down large ideas or difficult concepts into small pieces.
Open vs Closed
Pew Research says one decision will affect how people answer greater than anything else — an open-ended question versus closed-ended. When you really want to know what’s on someone’s mind, ask them an open-ended question. But when you want to know how someone feels about specifics, ask closed-ended questions that guide their thought process.
Agree or Disagree
This is one pitfall that we see often in surveys. Readers are asked whether they agree or disagree with a statement. People like to be seen as agreeable and will often agree with a statement regardless of what it says. We know this as acquiescence bias. Avoid this bias by offering two statements and asking which one they agree with more, or by rephrasing the question.
Ask Singular Survey Questions
This might seem obvious, but the number of times that a simple rule like this gets forgotten could surprise you. Look at this question for an example:
“How would you rate your meal temperature and the speed of service?”
While the two subjects are interwoven, they are still different questions. The meal temperature might have been ideal, but the guest might still have preferred faster service.
Keep Survey Questions Short
Along the same lines of simplifying questions, your questions should also be short. This isn’t the time to use fancy language. Brevity is the key to clarity, so use only as many words as you need to make certain that the question is clear.
Avoid Leading Survey Questions
“Many people feel that open offices are distracting. Would you agree?”
Objection, Your Honor! Leading.
How we phrased this question not only paints open offices in a negative light, it also taps into the acquiescence bias that we mentioned before. Try this instead:
“Do you find open offices to be distracting? Yes | No”
For an even more honest response, leave this as an open-ended question with a free-type box rather than a yes or no answer.
Keep Your Survey Questions Simple
Even if a customer has ordered from you a thousand times, make sure that you’re using plain language with them. They may be familiar with some terms that you use surrounding your products or services, but not all of them. They likely don’t know what your abbreviations or acronyms mean.
If you follow these points for each of your questions, chances are that you will start seeing valuable responses. Like anything, it will take a bit of practice to master, and testing different questions is encouraged.
Putting Your Survey Questions to Work
Now that you have your questions written, it’s time to make sure that you’re putting them to work in the best ways possible. Asking the right questions in the right way is only half of the battle for customer surveys. Now it’s time to figure out how to present those questions, test your surveys, and, of course, gather your answers.
For this blog post we are only going to concern ourselves with online surveys. That said, there is an entire discussion around in-person interviews, focus groups, and other ways to survey that can be profoundly valuable.
Presenting Your Survey Questions
When you’re writing out your survey, think of it as a conversation. Start with an icebreaker. It’s okay to have a light (or even lighthearted) question at the start. Starting with these smaller topics means that there’s a better chance that you’ll get them to move on to the bigger ones. This is an ideal place to start with yes or no questions, given their low barrier to entry.
Be mindful of the order in which you ask questions. Pew Research found that asking questions that invoked a strong emotional response often affected how the respondent answered the next question. You can avoid this pitfall by breaking up questions on a related topic.
This method of alternating questions is valuable for other reasons, too. Rather than asking one question about a subject, consider asking for a few different viewpoints. You might take this a step further by making it a priority to have different answer types intermingled among your questions. This can help to keep the respondent’s attention, and to create a more holistic picture of their opinion.
Don’t be shy about using attention-grabbing questions to break up sections of your survey. If it seems like things are getting tedious, tossing in a “throwaway” question like “Have you drank enough water today?” can help to bring your respondent’s attention back to task. That said, if you need these types of questions, ask yourself whether your survey is getting too long. Long surveys are rarely finished, and the need to break them up is a key indicator that something might have gone on too long.
It’s also important to offer your respondent an “out.” Not every question is going to apply to every person. Likewise, not every person will want to answer every question. Include an option for “This doesn’t apply” or “I don’t know,” unless you’re absolutely certain that the question is relevant.
Test, Test, & Test Again
No matter what platform you’re using, make sure that you test it. Google Analytics or another measurement tool can tell you what device most of your visitors use. Make sure that your survey works well on that type of device. Did you make a question mandatory when it didn’t need to be? Are there typos? Does the order of questions make sense? Testing can tell you all this and so much more.
Timing is Everything
If you’re sending out a customer survey and that person hasn’t done business with you in almost two years, it’s going to be hard for them to give you valuable answers. Think about the timing of the questions that you’re asking. Are they relevant to when you’re asking them? It’s better to send a timing-relevant survey to a few people than to flood your customer base with surveys that will get mediocre responses.
Track Your Progress
If your survey is longer than what you can see on a single page, include a progress bar. It’s an easy way to let your respondent know how long they can expect to spend on your survey, and they’re far more likely to complete it.
Getting the information that you need from customer surveys doesn’t have to be hard work, but it requires thought and practice. One way to make the process easier is to put TextExpander to work by loading frequently used terms and answers into Snippets. Start your free trial today, if you haven’t. If you’re already a TextExpander user, we’d love to hear how you put it to work on your own surveys.