No, I don't want to participate in a customer satisfaction survey every time

It seems that with more and more of the online transactions I engage in — and sometimes even when I don’t buy anything — I will get a request to participate in a customer satisfaction survey. Not just some of the time in some cases, but with every purchase. I’m also seeing it on web sites — sometimes just for visiting a web site I will get a request to do a survey, either while reading, or upon clicking on a link away from the site.

On the surface this may seem like the company is showing they care. But in reality it is just the marketing group’s thirst for numbers both to actually improve things and to give them something to do. But there’s a problem with doing it all the time, or most of the time.

First, it doesn’t scale. I do a lot of transactions, and in the future I will do even more. I can’t possibly fill out a survey on each, and I certainly don’t want to. As such I find the requests an annoyance, almost spam. And I bet a lot of other people do.

And that actually means that if you ask too much, you now will get a self-selected subset of people who either have lots of free time, or who have something pointed to say (ie. they got a bad experience, or perhaps rarely a very good one.) So your survey becomes valueless as data collection the more people you ask to do it, or rather the more refusals you get. Oddly, you will get more useful results asking fewer people.

Sort of. Because if other people keep asking everybody, it creates the same burn-out and even a survey that is only requested from 1 user out of 1000 will still see high rejection and self-selection. There is no answer but for everybody to truly only survey a tiny random subset of the transactions, and offer a real reward (not some bogus coupon) to get participation.

I also get phone surveys today from companies I have actually done business with. I ask them, “Do you have this survey on the web?” So far, they always say no, so I say, “I won’t do it on the phone, sorry. If you had it on the web I might have.” I’m lying a bit, in that the probability is still low I would do it, but it’s a lot higher. I can do a web survey in 1/10th the time it takes to get quizzed on the phone, and my time is valuable. Telling me I need to do it on the phone instead of the web says the company doesn’t care about my time, and so I won’t do it and the company loses points.

Sadly, I don’t see companies learning these lessons, unless they hire better stats people to manage their surveys.

Also, I don’t want a reminder from everybody I buy from on eBay to leave feedback. In fact, remind me twice and I’ll leave negative feedback if I’m in a bad mood. I prefer to leave feedback in bulk, that way every transaction isn’t really multiple transactions. Much better if ebay sends me a reminder once a month to leave feedback for those I didn’t report on, and takes me right to the bulk feedback page.

There are reasons....

As a "survey person," there are a reasons for the things you're complaining about.

The increasing numbers of survey offers you're seeing are driven by two things: (1) online surveys are cheap--offering it costs almost nothing; and (2) the response rate is low and dropping.

Surveys are usually designed to get a statistically large (usually 500-ish) sample for whatever reporting period the company is interested in (weekly, monthly, etc.) When the response rate drops, this means more people need to be offered the survey to hit the target number of completions. As you observe, though, when the number of offers goes up the response rate often goes down--especially when the surveys turn out to be long, poorly written, and irrelevant to the interests of the customer (as is often the case today). This leads to a death-spiral, and pretty soon everyone is offered a survey every time and it just becomes background noise for many people.

The reason a phone survey isn't offered in web form isn't because the company is disrespecting your time, it's because you can't directly compare a written survey to an interview. Questions--especially questions about opinions--take on different nuances when read vs. heard, and that means you need to carefully calibrate the written form of the survey against the interview form for it to be useful. Companies use phone interviews in part because they have a much higher response rate than online surveys (avoiding the response rate death spiral), and in practice less than one in a thousand people called on the phone will ask for an online version. Of those, only a fraction will actually bother to go online to complete the survey; in most cases "can I do it online" is just a polite way of saying "I don't want to be surveyed."

It simply isn't worth the time and money to build and calibrate an online version of a phone interview for the tiny number of people who would actually use it. Consider, too, that these surveys tend to change regularly (every six months to a year seems typical), and the expensive calibration process would need to be repeated for each new version of the script.

It is a death spiral

It is not just a death spiral because the response rate goes down and surveys become noise. A low-response survey is close to useless, often is useless. You’re now only surveying the rare minority of people who still participate in surveys. Worse, this is not a fixed minority, but will often depend on whether or not they feel motivated to tell the company something. Ie. you are going to get a disproportionate number of people who had a bad experience and want to complain, and you might then conclude everybody hates the company. You might as well just put up a complaint line or track help desk traffic.

The hard truth that few in the polling business will accept that if the response rate drops, the answer is not to increase the number of people you offer to. It is to find a way to increase the response rate. However, that can be more expensive. It’s not just because the extra surveys have become spam. I was shocked to learn about what the response rate is for phone surveys, below 1 in 10 I believe. And yet we are running the country and many of our large companies based on the results of phone surveys, when all we’re really surveying is the subset of people who are by the phone, have free time and are willing to do one. The opinions of people like me who hang up on surveys are not measured. And that’s not our fault.

Worse, I presume some of the online surveys are spam, just as many phone surveys are really scams to market a product to you without seeming to be a telemarketing calls. As that grows they will descend further into negative value.

And I fully understand how you can get more information in a phone interview. However, that does not mean the company is not disrespecting my time. A phone interview takes time, time which busy people don’t want to give. By letting me hang up you are making your survey more inaccurate that you would be by seeing an online response.

I think it would be good if when they published a poll they included the non-response rate. So the poll result should say:

20,000 people were surveyed. 400 said Republican, 500 said Democrat, 12,000 did not answer the phone, 7,100 answered but refused to participate.

The Big Lie

I object to companies that can't deliver and have poor customer service attitudes. By the time a survey hits I'm generally not interested at that point and resent the handing over of what is, essentially, valuable information for free. Given the look and feel of business is similar from a cultural perspective a lot of surveys are just noise because they're all chasing the same fundamentals. Company X never listens or gives a damn, so expectations are already geared to company Y being the same. I also think you have to factor in how competitive forces tend to complicate everything from law to product descriptions, and the expansion of the market and reduced significance of an individual customer.

If you look at any failing system such as, say, and individual online forum taken over by trolls or politics overtaken by cynicism you'll see a similar disengagement by people. Measuring, like argument, just closes people down. More attempts to engage drive them further away. Pushed hard enough by enough failed systems and they disengage completely to the point where they'll do anything as long as it's NOT anything to do with that failed system. What's ironic is how badly management and marketing get this given their alleged speciality in making things happen and people. Both the Tao and Zen Buddhism deal with "the market" and suggest that saying nothing or looking at what is not said are keys to understanding.

I've noticed over the past 20-30 years that the basic principles of craftsmanship and conversation has been lost. People are less focused on basic competence and being in touch while university education and marketing has gone off the dial. There's only so much capital in any system and when more is spent in one direction it has to decline in another. One interesting example is the near international collapse of the banking system and decline of retail banking. That happened because people want to control and acquire more. More complex and abstract questions where asked while profit making became more risk averse. The whole thing bust but institutions with a vested interest are still slow to acknowledge that or change their ways.

My suggestion is, simply, that the old model has failed and the future is small and more local business with a focus on building products that work and have a more personal relationship with the customer. That means people who are closer to the problems products are supposed to solve. You don't get that sitting in on the 50th floor of an oak panelled office reading quarterly reports. And that's what managers and markets forget. All their MBA's and clever surveys do is act as a path to deliver what the customer wants or direct the customer to wanting the product. The customer is the product. The customer is the market. When the disconnect is so big that companies can't meet that they will implode, sometimes as spectacularly as how some of the banks collapsed while new business, such as credit unions, arise from the market to take their place. The big lie is that we believed otherwise.

And Surveys Often Train Complacency

I agree. Surveys serve the company. The supposed benefit to the customer, "to serve you better," is intangible at best. A real relationship would serve both parties better, in my opinion.

But I'm also concerned that so many surveys train customers to be complacent about their on-line activity by linking to the third-party marketing company's domain.

"Dell has asked TNS (tnsglobal.com), a customer satisfaction research company in the IT industry, to help conduct a survey regarding your experience."

Oh, really? And just how is the customer to confirm that? There are no details of the transaction in the email. It is addressed "Dear Valued Customer." Does Dell really expect me to somehow confirm their relationship and then read TNS's privacy policy and agree to it before starting the survey?

No, Dell expects me to blithely click the link to tns-online.com based on that unverifiable claim.

JetBlue tries to get me to click a marketmetrix.com link.

Twine suggests I go to vresp.com.

Stamps.com sends me to vovici.com, but at least they include specific details of my interaction with Stamps.com and provide an opt-out link.

It's so easy to create a CNAME from the trusted domain. That how TiVo, TomTom, and Amazon show me the email actually comes from them.

If the company can't be bothered to extend me that simple courtesy, there's no way I'll complete the survey. And I probably won't continue to be a customer, either. I just can't stomach buying from companies who think it's OK to train their customers to trust any old link on the internet.

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