Why Customers Hate Participating in Surveys

They want to give feedback but feel companies don’t care about their opinion. The trust & empathy gaps have created a vicious cycle, devaluing survey-based 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 now getting less and less value out of customer surveys.

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. They are using stylized and ineffective procedures.

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):

  • Surveys that focus on the performance of customer service representatives and not on the company's policies or systems.  You may have had a perfect customer rep but the company's policies or systems made it almost impossible to actually fix the problem.

  • "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.

  • Using a third-party research company that contacts customers via email. I won't respond to those for the simple reason, the onslaught of phishing emails. Clicking unknown links isn't worth the opportunity to provide feedback (especially if the company isn't offering any kind of compensation).

  • The residential trash in my town is handled by bid thru the city. This is so garbage trucks from multiple companies aren’t roaming around daily. Yet, after recent contact with my waste hauler, I got a survey asking how likely am I to recommend [Garbage Service brand] to my friends-a net promoter score. Heck, what difference would it make-we have no choice-just another form of a monopoly here. Too bad because I had a bad experience and they didn’t care about it.

  • Surveys that are so hard to take that most people don't bother. For example, they want you to copy down a 12 character survey number and another 12 character password from your receipt. And you've already thrown out the receipt.

  • 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 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.

  • Asking you to fill out a survey way too soon on a major vehicle & major appliance that you've barely had possession of.  How do I know what I like about or what is wrong with my new [Automotive Brand] if I haven't even figured out how to use every button on it yet? Or realize it has 'blind spots' I didn't notice during the test drive. Give me a year....& then I can tell you how I really feel. Same with my new stove, dishwasher, washer, dryer, & refrigerator.

  • 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.

  • In the “different interpretations” category, [Restaurant Chain Brand] survey is focused on the server, but many questions do not reflect that.  In our experience, the problem is rarely the server but, rather, the kitchen staff.  So if we honestly reply that there was a problem, the server is dinged.  Recently, they removed the open-ended question that would at least allow us to explain ourselves….I would venture that the surveys are not accomplishing what [Restaurant] thinks they are.

  • 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.

  • The [Supermarket brand] survey, however, is an example of the worst design I have ever seen.  When I first responded to it, I spent 20 minutes scrolling thru the overly detailed responses.  Too much information...for instance, one section lists 10 questions and one must click on each question and then a drop down menu of 10 responses for each question appears and one must scroll down and click on a response from 1 - 10 "with 1 being "least positive" and 10 being "most positive."  Who at [Supermarket] is ever going to decipher the difference among ten gradations?  Make it simple:  three responses, "poor, average, excellent."  If I continued participating in their survey every week they would have had to wade thru them all, and they would have all been the same.

  • I suspect few, if any, at  [Supermarket] look at the survey responses.  Several times in the comment section, I commented on the quality of the survey and even suggested that  [Supermarket] management fill out their own survey to find out how cumbersome it is.  I even checked the box, "I would like to be contacted," and you guessed it, never got a response. Finally, I went into the store, found a "manager," and suggested to him that while their [Supermarket] on line pick up service is exceptional, the customer feedback query is poor. He did not respond, even to thank me for my input.

  • 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 ill 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.

  • Surveys that impact compensation. I’m familiar with auto repair and ANY score less than perfect (10) reduces the commission paid to service writers. These folks are forced into a position of breaking company rules by asking for only 10s or no response at all. A customer that is very happy but not 10 happy is now asked to fudge, denying the dealer the honest opinion it should be seeking. It’s a pervasive approach likely peddled by a foolish CX consultant.

There Are Trust & 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 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.

The people who wrote to me are 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.

This pervasive lack of trust and empathy are fatal flaws of today’s survey research practice, and not just for CX surveys. Very few consultants, market researchers, or academics seem to be paying meaningful attention to these serious and growing problems. If they are not resolved, the current decline we are seeing in survey response rates and response quality is going to continue until we reach a point where customer survey data is no longer seen by business decision-makers (the C-level executives) as a credible source of information and insight. This, in turn, is bound to hurt the credibility of the customer insights function more generally. I am concerned that leaders in many companies have reached this point already.

What This Means For Pricing Managers

This discussion has centered around CX surveys. However, surveys of customers or would-be customers are critical for many aspects of pricing research. Surveys are particularly useful for discovering customers’ willingness to pay. Methods like the PSM, contingent valuation, and the family of conjoint analysis methods all rely on customer survey data. Surveys are also necessary for understanding customers’ price image perceptions of a brand. I suspect that the widespread scorn for CX surveys seeps into how customers feel about pricing research surveys as well, and how they respond. This is a challenge that pricing managers need to acknowledge and solve when they use customer surveys for input into pricing decisions.