Customer Surveys – are they a Risk to Your Business?

It’s a Tempting Time of Year to Review things…. 

Your business, maybe even your life; and if you are going to review your business you might also be tempted to conduct a ‘survey’ of your customers.  After all they are the key to your success; so, why did they choose you? Did they enjoy the experience? Would they make the same choice again?.


It’s what your customers think that really matters, because today, they will influence more people to become (or not) future customers than you could hope to. 

There are so many free-to-use tools on the internet enabling each of us to quickly and easily set-up a survey and I am sure that, like me, you’ve received more than your fair share of surveys to complete.  Herein lies a problem:

Although all of us can now devise a survey, very few of us actually know how to avoid subconsciously phrasing questions in such a way as to get the answer we know is correct. 

Now, I can hear lots of you saying, “Rubbish!  You’re wrong, I would never do that.  It’s crucial to get an honest view from my customers and I wouldn’t influence that”.  Well I urge you to think again.  Questioning and the phrasing of questions is a specific skill and not one easily acquired; even TV/Radio presenters often ask multiple questions, leading questions, and questions in which they suggest the answer.  And they’re supposed to be the professionals!

In trying to craft some good advice about how to put together a customer survey I came across the advice below, I liked it and thought that I couldn’t do better – so I haven’t tried to.  I’ve added a couple of views, but essentially left Mr Abbott’s work as I found it.

Do Your Customers Live in Zoos or the Wild?

Every business recognises the importance of understanding their customers.  Many make a concerted effort to gather data through customer research, asking questions about what their customers’ preferences are so that they can improve their products or services.  But, how can you be sure that it is safe to act on the results of that research?

A famous example of research going wrong was Coke’s change to its formula.  In blind tasting, customers preferred the new formulation, so new Coke was launched with a huge fanfare and tremendous confidence… it crashed and burned!  Six weeks later traditional Coke was back on the shelves.

More recently Walmart surveyed its customers and asked them if they would like less cluttered aisles, customers said yes.  Millions of dollars were spent on altering existing store layouts, clearer aisles and shortened shelves were introduced.  The result was completely unexpected: sales went down.  Walmart estimated that they lost more than a billion dollars.

How could such ‘blue-chip’ companies, with as much money to spend on customer research as Coke and Walmart, get it so wrong?  The answer lay in another example:

Researchers (Nolan, Schultz, Cialdini, Goldstein and Griskevicius) surveyed householders in California asking them what would make them change their environmental behaviour.  Would it be because they believed that they were:

  • Helping the environment?
  • Benefitting society?
  • Saving money?
  • Because their neighbours were doing it?

Without exception all of the surveyed householders said that the last thing that would make them change their behaviour was what their neighbors do.  But guess what, when their actual behaviour was measured ‘what their neighbors did’ was the very thing that influenced them the most.

It seems that when you ask a customer a survey question, they do two things:

They use their rational mind and intellect to assess what they would do, but don’t engage their emotions.

They rationalise their assumed actions to conform to their views of themselves.

What do we mean?

Let’s go back to our Coke example.  You’ll remember that when ‘tested’, customers preferred the new flavour.  But, when they actually stood in front of the shelves at retail outlets, all of their emotions around the brand came into play – memories of childhood, Coke being a piece of American culture, whether they identify themselves as ‘Coke drinkers’ etc. – and this prevented them from buying the ‘new formula’ that tests actually proved they preferred.

Intellectually (what they thought), Walmart customers want less cluttered aisles.  But in practice, they shop for a bargain and associate a certain ambiance with low-cost shopping.  The new de-cluttered stores destroyed that ‘feeling’ and so emotionally, the shoppers wanted the clutter back.

We all think as the Californian householders thought: it would be shallow to be swayed by what our neighbours do or don’t do.  But conforming to social norms is an overpowering instinct that we simply can’t resist.

Asking customers survey questions is treating them like animals in a zoo: your survey is an artificial environment.  Sure you can learn a lot, but unless you are careful with the data and analyse carefully what it says, you can wildly misjudge what you are being told.  This type of research is best for gathering Hard Data (Did you go on holiday last year?) rather than Opinion Data (Why did you go on holiday last year?).

The key, whenever possible, is to measure customers’ actual behaviour – watch them in the wild.

If you are testing something new and it’s impossible to watch real behaviour, at least set up scenarios where something approaching real behaviour can be assessed.  Think of this as a safari park!

I hope this helps you to get the best research possible from your surveys this year. But feel free to get in touch with any questions or comments you have, or if you’d like us to assist you set up a survey for your business. Future Design Trend Intelligence focus’s on our ‘behaviour’ and ’emotional response’ to the world around us. Our clients always have ‘the right’ products/interiors/campaigns/events, at ‘the right’ time. For a no obligation discussion about how knowledge Today of the trends of Tomorrow can do the same for your business get in touch me; but do it Today, not Tomorrow…….  / Text or call me +44 7896 088996 / SKYPE philrpond …… or Write me a letter! 

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