I am inundated with surveys. Toyota wants to know how I like my car or service. Amazon wants me to rate my experience. Last week, I received a survey from my children’s school!

They come via email, phone, and mail. They come at all hours of the day. And some of them end up in the trash.

We all know that developing a deep understanding of your customers and how they make choices is vital to the success and growth of a business. Customer research is a key part of accomplishing this goal. I’ve worked with many dental companies who survey their customers – dentists and patients. They’re eager to know how satisfied their customers are or how their products and services stack up against the competition.

Sadly, many customer surveys leave a lot to be desired. Why?

First, they lack quality. Poorly written surveys lead to poor customer engagement, high drop-off rates, and less than optimal results. Basically, a waste of time.

But more importantly, their aim is off. Therefore, the results of these surveys aren’t actionable and don’t directly impact the company’s growth objective.

To get the most out of survey research, you have to start with the decision you need to make, think about what insights you need to make that decision, and then use best practices in survey design to conduct customer research that will get you there. Otherwise, you’re spinning your wheels.

Start with the End in Mind

Let’s assume for a moment that you’ve written a really great survey (we’ll come back to that in a minute). Now you have the results. What are you going to do with that information? How will you analyze the data to understand your consumers and ultimately drive growth in your business?

We have to start at the end and work backwards from there. What kind of analysis do you need to make decisions and take actions?

Most survey systems will give you tools to compile all your survey responses into summary charts and graphs. Maybe you learn you have a 76% satisfaction rating or that 9 out of 10 customers would recommend you.

That’s interesting, but what are you going to do with it? What information do you need to develop a strategy to increase that satisfaction or loyalty number? Can you segment the data to find out if there are differences amongst your customer population? For example, if you’re marketing a dental product to a certain type of dental practice, can you pull out data specifically for those customers?

Data Visualization and Analysis

At Vennli, I work with several colleagues that previously spent years analyzing patient satisfaction data and helping healthcare organizations make decisions. Other team members have spent years studying choice theory, qualitative and quantitative research methodology, statistics, and market research.

The entire team here is well versed in research, data analysis, and statistics. Therefore it’s no surprise that the research portion of our software is plug-and-play and gorgeous. But they know that data is nothing unless you can intuitively understand what it means and take action because of it. Data visualization is key to this.

So think about what analysis you need in order to make your decision. What insights will make you feel confident in your decision? What will help you mitigate risk or defend your stance? What type of output will help you visualize the results in the way you need?

Junk In, Junk Out

Now you know where you’re headed and what data you need to get there. It’s time to create your survey.

I’m no expert on survey design, but I’ve picked up some tidbits from the experts here at Vennli and learning along the way. And, let’s be honest, we’ve all seen plenty of examples of what NOT to do.

When writing customer survey, it’s critical that the survey questions are formulated in a way that results in compelling, actionable data. That means that the questions are clear and can only be interpreted in one way. It also means that the survey is organized in way that makes sense to the respondent and makes it easy to respond.

While reading up on good survey design or having a specialized background and PhD in research is certainly helpful when developing a new survey instrument, there are some best practices to follow. Here are 4 things to avoid:

1. Leading questions

A leading question is worded in such a manner that it subtly prompts the customer to answer in a particular way. This just will confirm what you already know and won’t give you the insights you really need to grow your business. Some can be flat out suggestive. Here’s a nice one:

Why is Product A better than Product B?

Or, even better, want to know if your customers think you should lower your prices? Try asking them “Should we lower our prices?” The answer will be yes. Helpful? Not really.

2. Unclear wording

These are questions that make you say, “What???” When questions aren’t clear or can be interpreted several ways, the results end up being useless. It could be that the question is “double-barreled” (two questions in one!), contains a double negative, or just doesn’t make much sense. Here’s one I witnessed recently:

Were the providers who cared for you always familiar with your most recent medical history?

o No
o Yes, sometimes.
o Yes, always.

3. Out of touch questions

And then there are the questions that reflect a poor understanding of your target audience. For example, if you want to ask about the age of your dental customers, don’t ask a question like this:

What is your age?

o 18-24
o 25-35
o 35-45
o 45-50
o 50+

4. Unorganized or unfocused.

Last but not least, poorly written surveys lack focus. Instead of tackling one objective, they throw in the kitchen sink and the survey gets way too long. This is the “while I have your attention, let me also ask you about this and this” strategy. High drop-off rates ensue. Keep it on topic.

At the end of the day, good survey creation involves working backwards. Starting with a good understanding of what you need to do – the question you need to answer – then thinking about the insights you’ll need to answer that question, and, finally, creating a survey that will drive those results.

Surveys get a bad rep because of the number of poorly written ones that are thrown out there without much thought or experience behind them. But not all surveys are created equally. Market leaders know that they have to stay in touch with their customers in order to create customer-driven growth strategy. Good quality customer research provides them the insights to grow.