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Why Customers Hate Participating in Surveys

They feel companies don't care about their opinion and lack empathy.

Key points

  • There are gaping trust and empathy gaps between customers and companies in survey research at the moment.
  • Customers do not trust companies’ motives and are scornful of their abilities to properly collect or use survey responses.
  • Companies are lacking in empathy at every step of surveying their customers, which may contribute to a devaluing of survey research.

"It is possible that these declines in response rates have forced a tipping point or paradigm shift that de-emphasizes the traditional random sampling-generalization nexus.”Stedman et al. (2019).

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal titled “The Five Biggest Mistakes Companies Make With Customer Surveys.” In a nutshell, I argued that a significant percentage of customers are dismissing surveys as not worth their time, and companies are not getting less and less value out of customer surveys.

My WSJ article generated more letters and emails than anything I’ve written this year—dozens of them. Most responses were from people agreeing with my list based on their experiences as customers, and adding other company mistakes they thought I missed. A few were from marketing researchers bemoaning the decline of surveys. Interestingly, not a single person that wrote to me said they liked taking surveys or refuted my core, rather pessimistic assessment of survey research.

What Customers Dislike About Surveys

Here’s a selection of what letter-writers (all customers) said they dislike about surveys. (I’ve taken the quotes verbatim from the correspondence. The only thing I edited out was brand names):

Sad Woman/ Kraken Images
Source: Sad Woman/ Kraken Images
  • "Take our survey and you could win $1000!" offers. I find these to be almost insulting.
  • Worse, they ask my feedback before I have been satisfied or not. Someone there doesn't really care. If I fill out the survey it will only confirm what they wanted, indifferent to the core customer concern.
  • Most surveys do not offer a "not applicable" option. Not every question applies to me. Very frustrating.

  • Here's the main problem with most feedback surveys I get: They ask questions about the telephone service, the courtesy and knowledgeability of the person talking. That's almost never what my complaint is about. My complaint is about the product, not the communicator. Worse, they ask for my feedback before I have been satisfied or not. Someone there doesn't really care.

  • I find that, all in all, what I most dislike about customer surveys is when the company clearly does not want to know what I really think. They expect me to take time and effort to respond to their survey but they obviously don't really care about my opinion.

  • Giving the respondent a seriously low-ball time estimate for completing the survey.

  • One of my pet peeves with customer surveys are the ones that do not give the respondent an opportunity for N/A and will not allow [further] completion of the survey. I suspect such deficiency in survey structure results in many fewer responses.

  • I got so annoyed with the [Automotive brand] dealership who would ask me to fill out their survey before I left and before I knew if they actually fixed the problem, that I told them to never send me a survey again.

  • My experience with surveys is the “employee” who gives you the survey to fill out usually says, “If you don’t give me a ten I'll lose my job.” And goes on to tell you if you have concerns just talk to him and do not write it down.

  • The top of my useless questions list is one which asks the user to rank their experience relative to their expectations. The company has no way of knowing what my expectations were. If I expect first-class service and I get it, my accurate response is Meets Expectations.

  • Another important reason why customers like me never fill out surveys concerns confidentiality. I don’t want companies to have my email address.

There Are Trust and Empathy Gaps in Survey Research

They only want me to confirm what they think. They only want 10s for all questions. They don’t care.

Looking beyond specific survey design issues raised by customers like the use of too many 10-point scales, not providing a N/A option, forcing responses, and providing underestimates of completion time, the common theme that emerges is the lack of empathy of companies conducting surveys.

Surprised man/ Kraken Images
Source: Surprised man/ Kraken Images

The people who wrote to me are, by and large, enthusiastic and relationally-oriented customers. They are sincere. They want to give feedback to companies they do business with. But with every survey they answer, their belief grows that companies don’t care about their opinions. The companies won’t use their feedback meaningfully. They have stopped trusting companies. It’s a vicious cycle. At best, it will lead to non-response to future survey participation requests. At worst, it will lead to frustration, disengagement, and defection by the very customers who are the most engaged.

Companies are lacking in empathy at every step of surveying their customers. They are using stylized and ineffective procedures. Without a huge shift in every aspect of how surveys are designed, used, and analyzed, the future of this method to gather customer opinions is in peril.

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