An Annual Satisfaction Survey is Good, but not Sufficient

In a recent post, I built the case for why customer satisfaction is more than an annual survey. In this post I discuss why an annual customer satisfaction survey is a good start for collecting customer feedback, but not enough.

There are two interrelated issues to consider: time and place.


Customers want to give you feedback when they want to and that does not necessarily coincide with when you ask them. Think about your own experience. When do you want to spout venom or accolades? Probably when it is freshest in your mind, or more precisely when the emotion, either positive or negative, hits its zenith.

Choose the Best Approach for Your Business

There are two ways to conduct the surveys and the approach should be determined by what makes the most sense given your business model. In some cases, companies incorporate both types of data collection:

  • Project- or transactional-based. Collect information at the end of an engagement or at the point of service. This would be a good approach for a help desk service or a project-based professional services firm.
  • Relationship-based. Collect information annually or semi-annually to assess the overall relationship. Companies that have ongoing relationships and/or long-term contracts would opt for this approach.

Other things for the survey team to keep in mind when developing a relationship-based survey:

  • Representative sample vs. census. Depending upon the size of your customer base, it may not be feasible to reach every customer and therefore you may opt to survey a representative sample.
  • One-to-one. Key customers should be treated differently. Use personal visits or telephone surveys to collect the feedback from your key accounts.
  • Rolling collection. While you should never approach an individual customer more than once or twice per year for feedback, it’s best to stagger the surveys over the course of the year to maintain a continuous voice of the customer and avoid that one-time project pigeon hole. For example, you could break up the target customer base into four groups and survey one group each quarter and then aggregate the results at the end of each year. The continuous feedback helps gauge customer reaction to events as they occur—a change in support hours, for example—rather than waiting until months later.


Customers also want to give you feedback where they want to and this won’t always coincide with your annual survey or project/transaction surveys. Customers provide you with feedback at just about every touch point. The trick is to remember to listen and observe and then collect the data in a central repository where it can be accessed and analyzed.

Listen Across Multiple Channels

Companies need to listen to customers across multiple channels. In addition to surveys, other important sources of client feedback include:

  • Customer service hotline. Provides information as well as an empowerment to the front line.
  • Customer visits. Thoughtful study of customers in the setting in which they actually use your service or offering provides the most intimacy. When employees see the service in use they get ideas for improvement that customers themselves may never propose.
  • Online communities. Communities are online Petri dishes for observing buyers’ behavior, researching their needs, offering help and thought leadership content, and building trust and relationships by facilitating buyers’ conversations with one another.
  • Social media. Find out what people are saying about you. Listen to and track the relevant conversations. It’s important to know who is saying good things about your company, but it’s even more important to know who is saying bad things and responding when appropriate.
  • Customer councils/advisory boards. Regular meetings provide a higher level of intimacy than focus groups. Customers who think about your problems over the long-term may come up with especially valuable ideas and solutions.
  • Face-to-face individual customer interviews. In groups, customers influence one another’s responses. Individual interviews may enable customers to articulate more personal thoughts.
  • Reviews. Provides a window into what your customers are telling others.
  • Debriefing frontline sales and service people. Taps the vast pool of information and insight your organization already possesses.
  • Competitive win/loss debriefings. Special interviews with the customer at the time you win or lose a piece of business catch the customer when the experience is still fresh. These conversations may uncover invaluable insight on where your strengths and weaknesses lie and a better understanding of the competitive landscape.
  • In person tradeshows, conferences, and seminars. You can meet more customers per dollar expended than with other methods.

Create Both Standard Methods and Informal Processes to Gather Input from Customers

It is important to establish standardized processes for gathering customer satisfaction and loyalty data reliably and accurately across the company.  However, companies don’t need to wait to do a formal customer satisfaction survey before collecting feedback from customers. Social media, pop-up surveys on the website, customer advisory boards, sales meetings, and other listening posts for gauging what customers think should also be used. The old-fashioned suggestion box is as valuable as ever, but perhaps you want to automate it!

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