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If customers willing to take surveys are like buffalo, then you are hunting them to extinction. Sure, when that first department in your company got up the gumption to go out and do a web survey, you were shocked at the huge response rate. That department feasted on customer data.

Then every other department decided to do the same thing, each riding a different survey tool and rounding up a different house list of customer email addresses. What followed next was a veritable Wild West of web feedback, as a bunch of survey cowboys stampeded out to do their own surveys to support their own pet projects.

All of a sudden, response rates started to go down. Departments didn't starve, but they had less customer data than they used to.

Eventually there was the customer survey that nobody bothered to answer.

Your survey respondents had gone the way of the buffalo.

Listen to this customer of a Fortune 100 company, speaking to the CEO. "We love your company. We love your products. We love your services. We hate your surveys. Last year you sent us 100 separate surveys." When the CEO investigated, he discovered that the client was wrong. They had actually sent out invitations to hundreds of separate surveys.

It's the tragedy of the respondent commons.

Your employees acted in their own rational best interests. They were empowered and driven. They proactively got customer feedback and worked around delays with the marketing research and information technology departments. No doubt their performance reviews praised their initiative. But now few customers want to take your surveys.

Which means the data that you do gather isn't representative and could lead to bad decisions. Here are some of the problems with the Wild West approach to web surveys. Customers stop taking requests for surveys seriously and respond less often. As response rates drop, employees invite even more customers to take surveys or send more and more reminders. Significant time and energy is invested in gathering survey results, but those results are not even shared within departments, let alone between departments. Employees field separate surveys that have much in common and ask questions that have already been asked.

Information is gathered inconsistently by different authors, limiting the ability to study changes in customer attitudes over time and the ability to compare results across departments and product lines. Finally, no one has a true, holistic picture of the customer experience.

With survey tools, employees made an end-run around the sheriffs of the organization. The sheriffs are just starting to notice. The Legal department realizes that the corporate privacy policy has been violated and sensitive customer data is on third-party sites without the knowledge of IT. The IT department discovers that data is being stored on insecure sites where it can be easily compromised. The marketing research department learns that important business decisions are being made from questionnaires that contain leading questions, double-barreled questions and incomplete choice lists and from survey samples that aren't representative of the customers being studied.

How do you get customers willing to provide feedback off the endangered list?

Survey tools are meant for the student, the teacher, and the small business owner. They aren't meant for the enterprise. You need a feedback management platform that will centrally limit and manage access to your "respondent commons" -- your panel of customers will to take surveys.

Gartner estimates there are 70 EFM (enterprise feedback management) vendors around the world. These vendors have on-demand and installed software that will help you create a shared panel of customers, often integrated directly with the CRM (customer relationship management) system. They implement a feedback process and workflow.

Yes, any individual in the company can write a web survey with a feedback platform, but now someone reviews and approves the survey before it is published. A random subsample of customers is invited -- enough to draw valid conclusions from but not so many as to prevent other departments from conducting their own research.

Feedback management platforms also support service recovery. When a client is dissatisfied with an area of service, a survey alert can immediately fire off an email to a customer-service representative or log a new issue with a case-management system. Now the organization isn't just collecting feedback but is acting on it immediately to improve satisfaction.

This tactical approach is just one way to improve customer service. Feedback management systems facilitate operational and strategic approaches as well.

What were in the past survey projects become operational survey processes, sending off automatic survey requests after each call in to the contact center. Integration with the contact center software enables rich information about the nature of the transaction to be captured behind the scenes, so that the customer does not have to answer detailed questions about their call. This short survey acts as a much longer questionnaire that can be analyzed and segmented across rich operational data. These processes provide rich, rapid feedback that can be used to identify a pattern to complaints, enabling the organization to design a customer-focused solution.

Strategically, the enterprise can begin to develop a linkage model between operational performance, transactional satisfaction, relationship satisfaction (from a quarterly or annually proactive survey) and financial outcomes. The sophisticated enterprise can use this to cost-justify operational and transactional improvements. For instance, justifying hiring additional contact center representatives by seeing how they can improve operational measures (e.g., call response time), which will drive transactional satisfaction, which will improve relationship satisfaction, which will lead to greater customer loyalty and increased revenue from these accounts.

If the customers are the land off which our organizations live, good survey stewardship will enable our organizations to thrive and grow for years to come.

About the Author

A co-founder of Perseus Development Corp. and a pioneer in the feedback industry, Jeffrey Henning brings a unique depth of experience in driving continuing innovation at Vovici. Henning has 21 years of experience in the market research industry with roles including market research consultant, analyst and writer to complement his time as a software developer for in-house projects and commercial software. While at Perseus, Henning developed SurveySolutionsR for the Web, which won the PC Magazine Editors' Choice Award for web-survey software. He was also named a Visual Basic Programmer's Journal "Basic Hero" in 1999. In 2004, he led the marketing and software development teams that pioneered and named the concept of Enterprise Feedback Management. Prior to co-founding Perseus, Henning worked with BIS Strategic Decisions (now part of Forrester Research) in the U.S. and in Europe managing survey-research projects for high-tech leaders of the Fortune 1000. Henning was formerly a columnist with Computerworld magazine. He writes regularly on the Vovici blog and is theauthor of the eBook, Survey Software Success.

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