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The Inexpensive Survey Tool – Good or Bad for Corporate Research?

Dangers of Free Survey Software Tools


When SurveyMonkey was founded in 1999 its availability ushered in a new chapter in customer research. No longer were companies solely reliant on expensive research firms to field customer satisfaction or market research surveys.

Naturally, the DIYer fell in love with the tool since it was free and relatively easy to use. Within just a few years, our email inboxes would be flooded with surveys created using SurveyMonkey and the many other inexpensive survey applications. Even a smaller company with limited resources could now write survey questions (or find survey templates online), and within a week or two, the survey data would be available for analysis, interpretation and action planning.

What could possibly go wrong? Well – a lot, as it turns out.

Conducting Corporate Research In-House

As the founder of a customer experience consulting firm, I admit to having a love-hate relationship with free or low-priced survey tools. That’s because I believe every company should be practicing customer-informed decision making.

As we’ve been reminded many times since the advent of social media, customers are more empowered than they’ve ever been. There are hundreds of sites that enable them to research products, read reviews, invite the opinion of others, compare, price shop, and – importantly – share their experience. So, clearly, companies must cater to customers much more than they did before. This is a good thing.

And, while some companies engage in activities that satisfy customers simply to avoid the reputational risk when they don’t, more and more business leaders recognize that there is a significant profit motive for adhering to a customer-centric business model. Besides, applying concepts that align with The Golden Rule is simply the right thing to do!

It probably comes as no surprise that, at Satrix Solutions, we are passionate advocates for continuous improvement based on Voice of the Customer (VoC) insights. This is where our love for the free or inexpensive survey tool comes in.

Customer research has gone through a democratization of sorts, and that – generally speaking – is a great thing. Companies large and small are inviting feedback from their customers, and discussions about customer feedback in the C-Suite and Boardroom are more prevalent than ever.

Even in the relatively short time since I founded Satrix Solutions in 2008, I’ve witnessed the significant adoption of core VoC principles by B2B companies which only ten years ago were largely behind the curve when applying customer research to their strategic initiatives.

Consequences of In-House Surveys

This all sounds great, no? So, what’s the downside? Well, much like everyone with access to WebMD and Google is now a medical expert capable of diagnosing the rarest of ailments, those with access to free survey tools are instant customer survey experts, right? Unfortunately not. Granted, the risk of a company deploying a poorly designed survey program isn’t quite as dangerous as self-treating a disease, but doing so can still be profoundly damaging to a business.

Let me start with what is possibly the worst-case scenario.

Imagine a CEO who truly wants to improve the customer experience. She rightly determines that her team shouldn’t make important decisions based solely on anecdotal information or a handful of data points relayed to her by members of her team, so she charges the CCO, CMO or COO with soliciting customer feedback to help establish the company’s priorities for the year ahead.

The project is assigned to a Marketing Manager or Project Manager, who jumps into SurveyMonkey and sends out a survey. A few weeks later, the results are shared with the leadership team. The “findings” identify a significant pain-point that was largely unknown, leading to a flurry of activity, including a new budget item to hopefully address the issue. Money is allocated, people are hired or temporarily re-assigned, and great effort is put forth to fast-track a fix.

Fast forward six months, another survey is distributed, and much to everyone’s surprise, customer satisfaction has declined even further. What went wrong?

Well, it turns out that the leadership team was misled by bad data.

We’ve seen this scenario play out a number of times. Satrix Solutions is hired to audit an existing Net Promoter or Customer Satisfaction Survey Program, only to find that the data was either biased, not representative, gamed, improperly analyzed or there was another of a myriad of potential problems that rendered the survey findings inaccurate or misleading.

Additional Risks for Conducting Corporate Research In-House

Fortunately, poor survey practices don’t often result in such dire consequences, but less dramatic outcomes can still be severe. Many surveys generate data that isn’t actionable or don’t answer the important questions that prompted the initiative in the first place.

A variety of issues can also arise when survey response rates are low; a widespread challenge when best practices in survey design and deployment aren’t adhered to. Companies can also experience a false sense of security when survey scores are inflated, thanks to the lack of governance framework, a methodology that isn’t clearly defined, or analysis of the results by people who don’t possess the necessary objectivity.

Poorly run survey programs can also frustrate customers that take the time to respond but don’t see any meaningful improvement in their experience. The problem can also extend to employees, who may not provide the much-needed support for the endeavor because they lose trust in the data, or are held accountable for results that don’t accurately portray customer sentiment.

Conducting Surveys In-House? Proceed with Caution.

The bottom line is that any tool is only as good as the operator, and inexpensive survey applications have put very useful and powerful software in the hands of some people who unfortunately don’t know how to use them properly.

My advice to anyone who is considering using one of the many survey software tools available today – proceed with caution and read the instructions before operating.