10 Tips to Craft Effective Online Surveys

Have you ever wished you had a crystal ball or perhaps telepathic superpower so you can understand what your customers want? Every small business owner needs insight into his or her customer base, and the good news is you don’t need superpowers to get it.

One of the easiest and most effective ways to gauge your customers’ thoughts is to use online surveys. This simple tool can help you identify at-risk customers, spot new trends and glean honest feedback from your customer base. As with any form of communication, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. After all, you want to build customer loyalty, not kill it dead.

We spoke with Mary Crogan, senior business and marketing manager at Constant Contact, a leading email marketing and online survey company, about the value of online surveys and the top 10 best practices to follow when surveying your customers.

The idea of online surveys as a means of gathering feedback is less familiar to small businesses, said Crogan. This process typically involves a handful of people and takes place through face-to-face contact or through comment cards.

The problem, according to Crogan, is that customers don’t always give accurate information in a face-to-face scenario either out of politeness or because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. “People are much more comfortable giving feedback online, and you also reach a larger share of your audience,” said Crogan.

Crogan sees online surveys as having a GPS for your business. “In the absence of feedback, you’re making decisions in a vacuum,” she said. “With a survey, you avoid wrong turns, costly mistakes, and you keep the business moving forward and on track.”

Top 10 Online Survey Best Practices

Have One Well-Defined Objective 

It’s important to focus your survey. Crogan recommends crafting business questions that focus on what you want answered. “For example,” she said. “Let’s say you run a pet shop that offers products, grooming and training, and you want feedback on the training classes. Don’t clutter the survey with questions about your other products and services.”

Keep it Short

You’ll get more focused answers if you keep your survey short and to the point. Crogan recommends a survey should take about five minutes to complete. “If you really need a longer survey, be sure to add an incentive — a coupon or discount — provide something of value to your customers for their time.” She also noted that a 10-question survey could take five minutes or it could take 10. It all survey depends on how you structure the questions, i.e., multiple choice or open-ended.

Design for Easily Measurable Results

If 90 percent of your survey questions are open-ended, you’ll have a tough time quantifying the results, which means you won’t know what action to take. Crogan used a wine shop scenario to illustrate her point.

“You could as an open-ended question such as, ‘Which of our wines do you like?’” she said. “But you’ll get much more measurable results if you reframe the question. Instead, ask ‘Which wines do you typically purchase?’ and then list groupings of wines for customers to choose from.”

Ask Only One Thing per Question

One data point per question helps you reap those measurable results. “Let’s say you’re an online bookseller and you want feedback about your customer service and your online ordering process,” she said. “Ask a separate question about each area so you can be sure you know which subject the answer applies to.”

Avoid Biasing the Responses

Be clear when you’re wording your questions, and don’t leave room for interpretation. “You’ll get better information if you avoid using words like Always and Never, because they can skew responses in one direction,” said Crogan. “You don’t want to set the stage and then lead them along the path subconsciously.”

She also recommends having a friend or an employee take the survey before you post it to make sure the questions are clear.

Be Selective with Required Questions

Some questions in your survey will be information you absolutely need answered, and it’s fine to make them required. But Crogan cautioned that there are some things that people may not want to answer. “Particularly when it comes to demographics, questions about race, gender and age fall into the nice-to-know-but-not-required category,” she said.

Order Matters

Crogan said it’s customary to group similar subject questions together and to place demographic questions at the end of a survey, which she said signals the end of the Web survey.

Create a Flow

Creating a logical flow makes it easier for your customers to complete the survey. Crogan recommends grouping logistics-related questions together and grouping content-related questions together. For example, a wine store might ask logistical questions, such as “How effective was our wine tasting event?” Then it might follow with content-related questions such as “Which wines do you prefer: Australian or Californian?”

Send it to the Right People

You don’t need to send your survey to every customer; you want to target your audience. “If you develop a survey around a recent event, send it only to your customers who attended the event,” said Crogan.

She said the same holds true when you’re conducting a survey to get info on your newsletter or Web site. Send those surveys only to customers who subscribe to your newsletter or those who frequent your Web site. “Keep the goal of your survey in mind,” said Crogan. “If it’s broad, general survey, then it’s OK to send it to your entire customer base.”

Share the Results and Actions with Respondents

This is an important step in building customer relationships. Crogan said after you analyze the survey results, be sure to share the information or the action you’re taking with your customers.

“It tells them, ‘We heard what you said and here’s what we’re doing to improve,’” said Crogan. “You’re creating loyalty and closing the loop on the customer engagement. This makes customers more vested in your business, and that’s gold in a competitive environment.”

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com

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