Surveys to make customers love you, not leave you

Some people are habitually downbeat or irritable. That's probably not mania. But being more angry or irritable than usual could be a sign of mania. "The key concept is that this is not their usual style," Dr. Wise says.
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(MoneyWatch) Recently, The New Yorker magazine sent me a survey. They seemed very proud of the fact that they'd achieved a nearly 100 percent response rate. That, of course, made me feel that I didn't want to be the one to let the magazine down, so I duly started the survey.

What the notice hadn't said was how much time the survey demanded -- it was very, very long. Nor did it explain that most questions related not to editorial content (the stuff readers love) but the advertising (the stuff only a few readers occasionally like.) By the time the survey was finished, I was steaming: it was too long, too commercial and, frankly, too boring.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love the magazine. I've been reading it (or at least reading the cartoons) since I was a kid -- and now my kids are doing likewise. But this episode illustrates the degree to which no survey is neutral. It may offer you data, but it also risks annoying or alienating your customers. You may learn more about them; you may also lose a few along the way.

So if you want to survey your customers and not leave them hating you, what should you do?

1. Tell them how much time it will require. Don't lie. Stick to the time limit.

2. At each stage, indicate how many more questions remain.

3. If you have an international customer base, do NOT ask what state the respondent lives in. Strange as it may seem to New Yorkers, the world is not divided into 50 states and the rest of the planet. If you are that provincial, please don't brag about it.

4. Say thank you. You've just consumed the most valuable thing in anybody's life: their time. You've taken it; you cannot give it back. So give something back -- a nice note, a funny cartoon or even a witty (if selective) summary of results. A prize draw -- that rewards one person and annoys the rest -- doesn't cut it.

It isn't that difficult really. You just need not to treat your customers with contempt. That appears to be the province of Goldman Sachs (GS) -- don't make it yours.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.