getting more out of surveys

When was the last time you filled out a survey from a business? Most people will have been asked for their opinion multiple times this week, if not today!

Customer surveys are part of life now – and you need to make sure your business is using them wisely.

The problem with surveys

Most companies start surveying because they want to find out what their customers think. They assume that if they find out what isn’t working for their customers (or what’s going well!) they can make changes to their business and make customers happier. Fair enough.

Except, that’s not what’s happening.

Customers aren’t as forthcoming as we want them to be. They have limited time and it’s unlikely that filling out your survey is how they want to spend it.

Not only that, even customers themselves often don’t know what they want.

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Steve Jobs

With low response rates, and inaccurate responses, most companies are finding survey data not as predictive of customer actions as they expect. In fact, HBR found that, “in business after business, 60% to 80% of lost customers reported on a survey just prior to defecting that they were satisfied or very satisfied.

You’ve possibly witnessed these defections yourself – it seems like customers are completely happy, and then the next day…they’re gone. This is the problem with surveys. When used poorly, they aren’t helpful.

Contextual surveying

So how do we avoid surprise customer defections? By building in context to our surveying methods.

You need to be surveying customers at different points in your relationship in order to build more complete picture. To make surveys more predictive of customer actions, we need to know the context the customer is experiencing, and ask the right question at the right time.

Let’s put it another way. Think about your favorite neighbourhood coffee shop. If I asked you now how your last coffee was – would you be able to give an accurate reply? Probably not (unless you’re currently enjoying it). However, if I asked you your overall impression of the cafe, you’d probably be able to give a much more accurate response. You’d be thinking back across your lifetime experience with them, not just one specific coffee, which might not have left much of an impression. Ditto your last survey

There’s two big types of contextual surveys – Operational and Lifecycle. Using them both correctly will allow you to pinpoint customer satisfaction to a specific event, timeline or cohort of clients.

Survey type 1: Operational surveys

Operational surveys are used after an event, a service interaction, a purchase or a shopping cart defection, for example. Operational surveys are most often seen as customer satisfaction surveys.

Poor service experiences are essential to catch for two reasons. Firstly, they are the number one reason why your customers might be willing to change to a competitor. In fact, 89% of customers (external link to say they are open to changing service providers after a poor experience. Embracing operational surveys makes sure nothing slips through the cracks.

Secondly, catching an unsatisfied customer in the moment allows you to take advantage of the service recovery paradox.  Customers can often be more loyal to your business after they have experienced a service failure (and then a recovery), than if it had never happened in the first place. Operational surveys give you the chance to catch a bad experience and turn it around for an even more loyal customer!

The service recovery paradox

To use Operational Surveys like a superhero, you’ll need to be tracking more than just the response.

Ensure your surveying program collects context around the survey. This helps you identify events that consistently cause decreased customer satisfaction, and allows to be proactive with new clients.

Secondly, maintaining this data can be helpful for delivering better Quarterly Business Reviews (QBRs) to your clients.

Since the traditional QBR has become more and more of a routine checklist to be avoided, your team can stand out by delivering impressive operational survey based Business Intelligence. As MSP Mentor states (external link):  

“By leveraging the customer’s own data and, after anonymization, data maintained for other customers of the MSP, the QBR can become an opportunity to provide actionable business insights that decision-makers can use to drive positive business outcomes.”

Keep collecting that contextual Operational Survey data to provide on the spot service recovery as well as creating bigger picture business intelligence.

QBR survey

Survey type 2: Lifecycle surveys

The second type of contextual surveys are Lifecycle Surveys.

These “just checking in” moments are based on crucial points in the customer lifecycle – such as after the first billing cycle, after onboarding is completed or after your company has announced a change in product.

Lifecycle surveys allow you to see the changes in customer perception over their entire relationship with your brand. This is different from Operational Surveys which are influenced entirely by a specific interaction. Let’s look at a couple important milestones where surveys can come in handy.

Onboarding – the first three months of a new client relationship is crucial to building a long term customer. You’re building rapport with your main contact, and knowledge transfer is higher at this stage than any other point in the lifecycle. Unsurprisingly, poor onboarding is a top 5 reason (external link to Computer Associates for customer defection for MSPs. Finding problems early can get you back on track, which is why an early lifecycle survey after the completion of onboarding is a great idea.

Post Cancellation Surveys – While it might be too late for *this* customer, post cancellation surveys can help you avoid the next defection.

Check out this great example from a fictitious bank created by Harvard Business Review. Their persistent questioning allows them to get to the very root of why this customer left them. In the end, it had nothing to do with money.

How long had you been a customer at Everybank?

Twelve years.

What caused you to close your account and move it?

Commonbank was right around the corner and they paid a higher CD rate.

Have Commonbank’s rates long been higher?

I don’t know, I just noticed recently.

What made you notice?

I was a little irritated at Everybank, and then I saw an ad in Thursday’s paper.

Why were you irritated?

Because I was turned down for a credit card.

Had you ever been turned down before?

Yes, several times, but this time, the bank gave me this big come-on about being a preferred customer—and then turned me down with a form letter!

Lifecycle surveys can be anything from a simple NPS email sent at a key moment, or a longer “state of the customer” census survey asking about everything from product to service to branding. But beware – if you make the survey too long, you might not see the number of responses you’re looking for. 

You are possibly best keeping it simple – as we do…

Embedded Thermometer example

A word about survey fatigue

If every department runs their own survey initiatives, your customers will be overloaded with surveys. While it doesn’t seem like researchers have agreed  (external link to Researchgate) on the maximum number of surveys that can be sent before you see a dropoff – when survey fatigue strikes you’ll see a lower response rate, and lower accuracy rates as customers get bored of reading.

In order to keep accuracy and response times high, make sure you reduce lengthy surveys to the bare minimum. Plan surveys across the company by time of year and customer lifecycle stage to avoid clusters of surveys at inopportune times.

Don’t ask questions you already know the answer to.

In fact, if you’re using Customer Thermometer to survey your customers, you can take advantage of our many helpdesk and CRM integrations to embed feedback buttons in all the right places, thereby reducing any redundant questions. Using this method, you’re even able to capture all of your customer’s data without them having to fill it in themselves.


Surveys can be hard. Ask customers to spend too long on surveys and you’ll stop getting actionable insight from your customers. Don’t survey often enough and you’ll see customers leaving you without any idea why they’ve left.

In order to use surveys effectively, it’s important to use the right survey at the right time to generate context.

Attaching a lifecycle point or event to your surveys allows you create a customer journey chart with high and low satisfaction points and paint a bigger picture of your customer’s relationship with you.

Don’t just survey your customers on a timetable – to get the most value from your customer’s feedback, create a plan for including both Operational and Lifecycle surveys in your arsenal!