Effective Tips for Writing a Customer Survey

An effective survey can help a business identify its strengths and weaknesses and use this information to improve and grow. But to gain the right information, you must ask the right questions.

Constructing an effective and engaging survey often proves more difficult than it sounds, but the results are worth the extra trouble. Here is a short guide to help you design a great customer survey.

Identify goalsYour first step toward writing an effective customer survey should be to establish a clearly defined set of objectives, according to Rita McGrath, associate professor at Columbia Business School.

"Your goals for the survey must be clear because this will guide your choice of questions and allow you to eliminate irrelevant or non-central points," she explains. "This will also allow you to do a better job of piloting because you'll be clear on whether the survey is delivering to your goals or not."

Indeed, a set of core objectives should determine everything from the format of your survey, to the types of customers interviewed and the questions that will be asked.

Choose a formatTo draw the most useful information from your customers, you'll need to ask your questions in the correct manner. All too often, McGrath explains, companies use an over-simplistic or one-dimensional approach that fails to paint an accurate picture.

"It's very common for companies to use those horrible 'on a scale of one to 10, how did we stack up on this, that or the other.' Instead, you want to be able to capture how well you are doing on dimensions that are important to people," she says.

McGrath also advises finding out the weighting a customer puts on a particular attribute, for instance, by forcing them to rank-order features or characteristics.

Design the right questionsEven with specific goals and format in mind, designing effective questions is more difficult than it sounds. Brief and succinct questions will be more engaging and should help keep the customer's attention. It's also wise to avoid the use of technical jargon, slang and abbreviations whenever possible.  Remember, the easier you make the survey, the more responses you'll get.

Test-run and demographicsA trial run can help you identify which elements of your survey work best, before finalizing the project. McGrath recommends testing it out on your family and friends to determine which queries strike a chord.

"A good survey should be pre-tested to check for consistency of interpretation by consumers before you do a substantial or large survey," she says. "Come up with some examples and pilot-test to see which yield the best results before going to a large scale. 

Finally, McGrath notes the importance of identifying the correct demographic for your survey. "You should also try to make sure that your respondents are representative of the population you are trying to learn about," she says. "If you only survey a sub-sample, you are apt to get skewed results which are not useful in making decisions."