Lose the customer survey. An internal survey is simpler and far more accurate

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I cringe when I look at some of my older columns. Time has made some of my thoughts so contradicting, I wonder what song sheet I was singing from back then.
One area where I’ve changed my tune is the value of customer surveys. In the past, I have penned how essential they are, insisted they be done annually, and made a lot of important business decisions based on their results. Fast-forward a decade and I think customer surveys of any kind are totally and utterly useless. The reality is they are rarely accurate (just like any other single method of collecting customer feedback). It still surprises me that almost every ISO Quality System makes annual surveys mandatory for registration.
I understand the allure of a customer survey. It’s almost like comfort food. Need to know whether your customers like you? No problemo! Just have sales whip up a survey. They’re fun to put together, easy to implement, and quickly provide loads of “important” information about how you’re doing.
They’re also a waste of time.
Imagine going door-to-door and asking your neighbours to rate key areas of your character on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 you’re a buffoon, 10 you’re Godlike). Surveying your own customers isn’t much different. Even if your survey is blind and anonymous, filling it out takes time and effort your customer just doesn’t have. Honestly, how much do you enjoy filling out surveys? How many do you actually complete? If you’re like me, it’s zippo. I won’t even do the ones that try to con you by offering the lucky draw for a free trip to Vegas. Let me get this straight: I’m going to tell you how bad your service is and you’re going to thank me by sending me to Sin City for a free weekend of fun and sun?
My favourite tactic is when the surveyor phones and has you paged out of an important meeting. I get so bent out of shape that even if I were a fan of Company A, I’d quickly convert to the dark side.
Survey YourselfPeople are way too busy these days to tell you what they think you should already know. I don’t know many customers who get excited over the call from a carrier’s quality manager looking to set up a meeting to discuss their disturbing survey results. By nature, we’d rather keep our mouths shut than open up about something that’s really not very important or pleasant to do. There are so many competitors banging on our customers’ doors that it’s easier for a customer to switch than to lay their cards on the table.
My suggestion is to lose the customer survey and do an internal survey by asking yourself the following 10 questions. It’s easy, simpler, and far more accurate.
1. If you were a transportation decision-maker, would you use the services of your trucking company? (If you wouldn’t, don’t worry about the next nine questions.)
2. Is your top- and bottom-line business growing with your existing, long-term customers? (It’s the fastest, cheapest, and most profitable way to grow. The 80/20 rule is A-OK.)
3. Are customers presenting you with new and exciting business opportunities that take you out of your comfort zone? (Shows a high level of trust and compatibility.)
4. Does your company get unsolicited calls from positive word of mouth? (Word of mouth is better than advertising and absolutely necessary to grow your business today.)
5. Would your company have the courage to implement an unconditional 100%-money-back guarantee? (Takes big nuts but makes a huge statement about your company.)
6. What do your competitors think of you? (It’s easier to find out than you think.)
7. What’s being said about you on social media sites? (No news is not necessarily good news.)
8. Do you get a lot of one-shot wonders, people who give you a trial shipment only to turn into Casper the Ghost, never to be heard from again? (A real litmus test. These customers were underwhelmed by their first experience with you.)
9. Does your product solve problems? (On-time service does not build loyalty. It builds vanilla, neutral, bland relationships.)
10. What’s your gut tell you? (Almost never wrong.)
Surveys are inaccurate, they irritate people, and most people don’t complete them when asked. If you need your customers’ input to tell you how your company is performing, it’s way too late. You probably already have a lot fewer customers to ask than you used to.

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Mike McCarron is president of Rite Route Supply Chain Solutions and a partner in Left Lane Associates. You can reach Mike at mike@riteroute.ca

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  • Personally I’ve always liked reading your posts and articles. Your evolving thoughts are something we could use more of. Congratulations on your successes and I hope you continue with this blog.

  • Interesting points, but I think you’re going to the opposite extreme. At our company we’ve embraced the philosophy of “what’s easy gets done” when it comes to surveys. We ask our customers to rate us on on a four-point scale for 3 simple questions regarding the sales experience, the operational experience, and whether or not they would recommend us. I do agree that draws are crap as an incentive. Instead of that, we offer a few free Air Miles for filling in the survey, no questions asked. The stats don’t lie:
    -For the last 3 years of doing this, we’ve had a 50.5% response rate on 1000+ surveys sent out
    -Of those, 65.7% have taken us up on the Air Miles incentive
    -When comparing the quality scores against our claims occurrences we see a closely corresponding trend (when claims go up, quality goes down)
    Having this data also allows us to make informed decisions about compensation, training, and staffing.
    We’re immensely proud of this system and the results we have. We threw out the bathwater and kept the baby.

  • Although I respect your right to have and share your opinion on this Mike, I find your comments surprising.
    To be totally transparent, some of my company’s revenue does come from providing market research services, so it’s fair to say I could be viewed as being biased on the topic.
    But I was a senior marketing manager long before I ever opened my own business, and on the basis of that alone I have a very different opinion.
    If a research study is done by a professional research firm they’ll make sure the sample size is sufficient and designed in such a way to be statistically valid (most commonly at either a 90% or 95% level), which means the results aren’t inaccurate.
    And that leads to my second point on the topic. The whole reason the professional market research community evolved was in response to a need among businesses to move away from and protect themselves against using biased or unreliable “ad hoc” methods of assessing situations and making decisions.
    While I do agree that surveys (which are only one method of research methodology available) can often be annoying for people, my experience has always been if the reason for the survey is presented in a way that shows what’s in it for the person doing the survey many will be happy to complete it.
    While the web and do it yourself online survey tools are great in many respects, one of the downsides I’ve seen is a proliferation of poorly designed surveys being sent out by well-meaning but ineffective non-researchers who quite literally don’t know what they don’t know. This ends up hurting everyone, and contributing to the annoyance factor and overall belief among some that research isn’t valuable.
    I’d encourage any company who’s serious about the long term growth and success of their business to seriously consider speaking to a professional firm to see how they can use good, sound research to their advantage.
    If one thinks about the trucking industry itself, there are some high quality, very effective carriers out there who know what they’re doing and do a great job, and some that aren’t. To say the good providers aren’t useful or valuable because of the practices of those who aren’t as effective just doesn’t seem right.