How to Increase Customer Experience (CX) Survey Response Rates

Customer Experience | Survey Design | PeopleMetrics LIVE

Reading time: 42 minutes

Trusted Experience Management Partners

Survey participation is a key part of an effective Voice of Customer (VoC) program. How do you ensure a high response rate? There are various best practices for getting customers to take surveys, from incentive programs to strategically designed survey reminder emails.

In this session, we share strategies to maximize customer survey response rates, and also discuss how to deal with low survey response rates as you're building your CX program.


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Sean: You can get, within reason, as high response rates as you want. It's just a matter of what levers do you want to pull to get there?

Madeline: Hi everyone - welcome to PeopleMetrics LIVE! Today we're talking about how to increase customer experience, or CX, survey response rates. So Sean, we often hear people say that survey response rates -- just in general -- are in decline. Is that true?

Sean: Not from what we're seeing. I know that's a common narrative -- that people are over-surveyed, they're overwhelming, surveys, they get all these surveys, but the reality is, people are sharing their opinions about their experiences more than ever before via surveys, via Facebook posts, via Instagram stories, you name it. And as long as you follow some of the guidelines that we're going to provide today, you should be getting a response rate in the double digits, which is pretty good -- especially without an incentive. So we're seeing more and more people wanting to provide feedback, and I think, Audrey, part of the reason is people know when they provide feedback, sometimes it gets acted on. Which is an incentive to provide the feedback to begin with.

Audrey: Definitely, yeah. I think people really are willing to provide answers to questions and want to share about their experience, and the survey is a great opportunity to do so, and like you said, Sean, people know that there's follow-up if they give a bad score, or even if something good happens. So I think they appreciate the opportunity to leave feedback in a survey, rather than having to use social media or something else if they don't necessarily want to do it publicly.

Madeline: Yeah, that's a great point. When we're talking about surveys, are there different types of surveys that can be used? I know we're talking about email, but is that the only option?

Sean: Right. So it's a good question, Madeline. So you have choices, and depending on your audience, that's part of this puzzle that we help a lot of our clients with is, what's the most appropriate methodology to reach out to your unique population? And we generally work with companies that either have lots and lots of customers that are B2C companies, those that have maybe very few clients, but they're worth really a lot to them and they're B2B companies, and we work with a lot of Pharma companies where they may have lots of patients or HCPs or maybe they have a small number of patients depending on their drug and disease state, right? So depending on the size of your population, you may want to consider different modes. So Audrey, the main methodologies we're using these days are... the most popular one certainly is email, right? So it's an email invitation that's unique to each respondent with usually a code at the end that allows us to tie operational information, personalize the invitation, etc. And that's what we do, we'd say, a majority of, right?

Audrey: Yeah, definitely. It's the most common right now.

Sean: And we'll see response rates there from the 10-20% range in a lot of cases. We also use something called "Interactive Voice Response (IVR)," which -- everybody knows this one -- this is when you get switched at the end of a call, typically at a contact call center, to a quick survey after that. Not a lot of people love this,  but believe it or not, those get the highest response rates -- typically 50-75%. The challenge with those, of course, is that you can't ask as many questions as you can with an email survey, and open-ended responses, meaning verbatims, are extremely tough to deal with because you have to ask the customer, the respondent, to speak it into the phone, and that gets recorded and needs to be transcribed and needs to be stored, and there's complications there. But we do some of that, right Audrey? And that's always a good option for contact center touch points.

Audrey: Yes. Yeah, we always kind of laugh about it, but we've seen some really good response rates and some valuable feedback coming out of it, so I wouldn't discount it. I think it depends on your customers, like we said in the beginning, but for touch points that are call heavy, it makes sense in a lot of cases.

Sean: Absolutely, and the other, I think, emerging one is SMS, or text, right? So we're seeing more people, more clients, interested in that and implementing that. And you know Audrey, I know a handful of your clients are doing that right now.

Audrey: Yeah, we're doing this more than ever before, where we send a text message with the link to the survey, and it's similar to email, where it's a unique code for each respondent, so we can still tie that operational and touch point data together with the response for that really robust reporting. And it's great because people are looking at their phones all day, so it's easy to capture their attention with the text, and they can click right into the survey from that text message.

Sean: Right. And we'll see a boost compared to email surveys for text. You'll be able to see a 10% or more boost in response rate there. The challenge with SMS texts is you do need permission from your customers to send that text to them. Some people still have data plans where they're charged per text, so you don't want to get in trouble with them or the FCC and all those things. So you do have to have a marketing consented list of customers to send those texts to. But I compare it to kind of what email was like maybe 10, 15 years ago, where most people had phone numbers back then of the customer, and those were landlines typically, and people were calling them. Email was like, "Oh, we've got to send email," but not a lot of people had the email and they had to get permission. Now everybody has the email, that's sort of like a foregone conclusion. But that's kind of what is going on with text these days. It needs to be part of your marketing plan in order to get permission from your customer to both obtain that, store that somewhere, have it connected to the record, pass that along to whoever your partner is when you're reaching out to get feedback. But those are the main methodologies that we see out there. And you know, there's trade-offs for each one and they'll get you varying response rates. Certainly the email. The email is least expensive, right, so that's why people go with it, right? The other two have an additional cost, right Audrey, in terms of SMS and IVR?

Audrey: Yeah, you have to work with a partner for those. So with SMS, you need the opt-in, you need your customers to say that they're willing to receive tests from you, and then you have to work with somebody who's actually going to send them the communication -- a provider who can actually send the text. So it feels challenging to set up, and it's not particularly painful, but once you do it, we've seen some really good response rates.

Madeline: When we're talking about response rates, I know you said between 10 and 20% for some of these different methods. Is there kind of a general number across all survey types -- between IVR, text and email -- that you'd say is generally a good response rate or acceptable response rate for surveys?

Audrey: So I'd say we always want to see a double digit response rate. If you can get to 10% or higher, then that's a really healthy response rate and we think we're capturing a good amount of feedback. Again, you want to think about B2B versus B2C. B2B clients, where each of their customers has a high value and is very important, we want to see a higher response rate than 50+% to make sure that you're reaching those valuable customers.

Sean: Yeah, I think this is the other reality -- you know, you can get, within reason, as high a response rate as you want. It's just a matter of which levers do you want to pull to get there? Now there's some that are costless levers, essentially, that everybody should be using -- and we'll be going through a couple of them now -- these are best practices. And then there's other levers you can pull to get more responses that will simply cost you resources and investment, and we can go through a couple of those too. But yeah, it's almost unlimited what you can do. But what you want to do is another question. So maybe what we should do, Madeline, is go through some of the best practices on email surveys, which is the common one most people are using -- what can people do to boose those, right? We wanted to talk about that.

Madeline: Yeah, that sounds good -- let's do it.

Sean: Let's do it. So Audrey, let's bring out a few best practices that we see... And you know, our clients come to us and prospects come to us all the time and they're saying, "We're not sure if we can get a response rate that we need. We've tried to get a high response rate before and we couldn't." And one of the things I think we've been able to figure out over 20 years is basically how to get the highest response rates possible within a budget that's reasonable. So it all starts with the invitation, right Audrey?

Audrey: Yeah, and we have a bunch of different levers to pull that we've been successful with, like you said. Starting with the invitation, you want to personalize it. So you want to make sure that you have information about the interaction: the date and time, the person that the customer interacted with on the phone, or the location that they visited -- anything to help them realize and remember that specific interaction that they had.

Sean: Right. So you want to use first name, last name if possible. You want to use, you know, "Thank you for doing business with us on X date for this thing." And then I'd say a really key thing is right below that, you don't want to write too much, right? So people don't want to work, right? Nobody wants to think, everybody just wants to see and do. So you want to just personalize it, and then boom -- get to what, Audrey?

Audrey: The first question in email. So you want to put the first question to your survey directly in that email, rather than just having a link or a "Click Here." If you can put the first question there, the person can immediately answer a question and then be directed into the rest of the survey, and that will really help your response rate.

Sean: I always compare this to going to the gym or working out. We don't go to the gym because of COVID, right? But people do work out at home or whatever. The hardest thing to do is starting anything. If you make it super easy for your customer to start the survey, they'll generally finish it. And that's why a really nicely designed, say, Net Promoter Score question -- which is often the first question asked on these surveys these days -- directly in the email is so much better than this long link with a bunch of numbers at the end, right? Because it feels like they're part of something that's easy to do when they see the question. When they see a complicated link, they don't know where that's gonna go. It's just different. So you get them started and you'll see a big bump in your response rate just from that. But don't make the invitation too long. Madeline is a marketer and she taught me this -- things that are below the fold, right Madeline, meaning below the eye when you first open -- they might not even ever read it. So you need that question to be visible within the fold, within the first visibility.

Madeline: Right. That's the other thing my marketing brain thinks about -- the A/B testing on the subject line, too, right? Being clear about what this email is about, are we asking for feedback? Are there some kind of good subject lines that you guys have seen?

Audrey: Yeah, there's lots of different versions of them. Often it's something like, "Thank you for your recent phone call," or "Stay at our resort," or just something that makes it clear that the person knows they just had this interaction and this is what this email is going to be talking about.

Sean: The other part about the invitation that's important -- and then we'll get to the actual survey to help you boost the response rate there -- is when you're using an email invitation, and you know who you're sending this service to, you can do what we call "targeted reminders." And what targeted reminders are is only remind those who did not fill out the survey to respond. And we're seeing bumps, right, every time we do one of those, Audrey, of a significant amount.

Audrey: Yeah, absolutely. So we just target non-respondents, people who haven't opened or clicked into the survey yet, and remind them with a follow-up email that says, "We really care about your feedback, please complete this survey."

Sean: And we even know who started it and didn't finish. You can have a separate one like that: "Hey, thanks for starting the feedback, we'd love for you to finish up and hear about your full experience." There's ways to boost this -- it just takes a little bit of effort and the right partner. But you know, you can bump that response rate definitely into the double digits if you're working it like we're talking about right now. 

Audrey: Part of it is being thoughtful. Think about where are your customers in the world? What time zone are they in? Sending the communication at a time that makes sense for them to receive it rather than in the middle of the night.

Sean: Audrey, what's the best time to send, are you finding, these days? Like when would it be if you're in a certain time zone? Let's say we're on the east coast - what's the best time?

Audrey: Yeah, we like to do between 9am and 11am on Monday or Tuesday usually. And we've seen we get a pretty good bump right when the communications go out at that time.

Sean: Excellent. Anything else on the invitation that we want to talk about before we get to the survey, Audrey?

Audrey: This is for the survey too, but it has to be mobile-friendly and device agnostic. People are doing their feedback and work on all different kinds of devices, so it needs to just work on whatever your customers choose to use. 

Sean: Definitely. So let's jump into the survey. A) Mobile friendly, for sure. And part of mobile-friendly means not too long, okay? So in your invitation, you should be telling the customer exactly how long it's going to take. You should be testing that before doing that, and you definitely shouldn't fib and say it's going to take two to three minutes when it takes ten. You're going to get -- it's called "expectations disconfirmation," right? You're going to get a lot more people having their expectations not confirmed and dropping off, and if you just would have been up front in the beginning that it was ten minutes... But transactional surveys, which is a lot of the ones we do... Maybe I should just define those. Those are, after some sort of event or touch point or moment of truth where your customers are interacting with your company. Common ones are a call to the call center, a visit to a store, somebody visiting the customer's home, some sort of digital experience on a website app or portal... It's something that happened, right? And as soon as that happens, typically, then a survey is sent. And those surveys should definitely not be long. They should be two to three minutes, it should be short and sweet, and you should be getting at... NPS is kind of common these days to find out about, but it should be "How was the most recent experience?" "Was there a problem?" "If there was a problem, what was that and was it resolved?" Those are the main things. That's basically all you need. There's a lot of other things you could ask on these, but you just kind of need to get to it.

Madeline: That's an interesting point to make, too, that the point of a transactional survey is to be feedback about that moment in time. You know, it's not a longer-form more general survey, right? Like a relationship survey...

Sean: Right. Relationship surveys are much broader -- where you'd be asking about the overall relationship your customer has with your organization. And usually we ask about anybody who interacted with you over the past year, and thinking about their overall experience with you over the past year. Then you get into a lot more detailed questions about how they interacted. You can even ask them about your competitors and how you compare to your competitors, the experience they may have had with them, and it's more of an involved thing where it can be ten minutes or so... And you might even offer an incentive for that if it's long enough, where you don't think people are going to fill it out, right Audrey? We've certainly done that. Or a sweepstakes type thing where you incent people to participate. What else about the survey, Audrey, do you think is key to think about response boosting?

Audrey: I think limiting the number of open-ends... Just using open-ended questions only where they really make sense and where they're important. If you have too many open-ends in a survey, people are going to drop out. And so that's part of making it easy to complete -- that people can provide their answer to a question and they don't have to continually type things in.

Madeline: An open-end question is where you're basically in a free-form text field, right?

Audrey: Exactly.

Madeline: Okay.

Sean: Absolutely. And those questions are super valuable, so use them wisely, right? So what we're typically doing is we're asking either "Why?" after NPS or the most recent experience, right Audrey?

Audrey: Exactly.

Sean: And then definitely you need to ask them to describe a problem if they had one. But if the customer didn't have a problem, they're not getting that question. So that's another way you can learn. But you're really getting context. But if you have... You know, I know it's tempting to have an open-end after every question, but just don't do that. Because one of the reasons is... Part of response rates is your customer's experience with your survey. And that's another touch point, you know? This is in my book, Listen or Die, and there's a chapter on this in Listen or Die too, by the way, a book that I wrote a couple years ago, on survey health -- and a lot of what we're talking about here is in that chapter. But you have to think of your survey experience as a key touch point with your customer. You can't waste their time. They don't want to fill out any more questions than they absolutely have to. Customer experience surveys aren't a place to test reliability and validity of questions. It's not an academic survey. It's not like you're trying to trick them to see if they're consistent on two different questions. This isn't where you should be doing that, right? You just should be straightforward, as few questions as possible. Because it's all about action. That's what customer experience management is all about -- it's the management part, right Audrey? It's like, "Okay, my customer had a poor experience yesterday -- we've got to do something about it." Or, "Man, all of our customers had a poor experience this week because of some technical difficulty -- we've got to respond to this."

Audrey: Yeah. I talk to clients all the time about, you know, "What is the goal of asking this question?" And then, "Is the feedback actionable? And if it's not, then what are you doing with it? Do you really need it?" And the answer is likely "No." So that's how we try to keep our surveys short -- so the feedback is actionable, you can do something with it, and it allows your customers to provide the feedback that they actually want to provide.

Sean: Exactly. And if you do all those things that we're talking about, you are going to see response rates go up. Why don't we go into a few fun esoteric ones -- like if you had unlimited budget, how do you get the biggest response rate possible? So obviously giving them a huge incentive, you will get more people to fill it out. So if you gave everybody a hundred dollar gift card to Amazon, likely you would get a lot more responses. But here's a funny thing: I did an experiment early in my career -- we sent everybody who filled out a survey, the incentive was either a ten dollar bill to half, and it was a one dollar bill to the other half. And do you know that the response rate was not significantly different between those two?

Audrey: Wow.

Madeline: That's so interesting. Money is money!

Sean: Yeah. So there is diminishing returns around the amount of the incentive that you provide to get the response rate you want to get. Incentives are fine -- like every person that gets really expensive sweepstakes are much better, but we've done some other things. We've worked with some really high-end clients where they had a limited number of clients and they wanted to have a unique experience. One time we sent out a really super nice letter on the client's letterhead, FedExed to each client explaining how much we appreciate their feedback, giving them the opportunity to go on a unique URL for them, type that in and fill out the survey. And we also sent them a survey invitation, which resulted in response rates above 40%.

Madeline: Wow. That makes me think -- are there certain types of businesses where, you mentioned a smaller group of clients or customers, where it's more important to increase your response rate?

Sean: Yeah, I mean, Audrey, senior leadership, or someone from the client personally being involved, does help response rates, right? Like, we've seen that before.

Audrey: Yes, very much so, yeah. And that's one of the things in the communications about, you know, who's signing the email that goes out? Who's name is on it? So that gives the customers an idea of who's looking at their feedback. We've done some other creative things like being able to donate to a charity of your choice at the end of a survey, or saying that for every response, the client is going to donate X amount to a specific charity... Those have been really successful. We've also done individual phone calls, where we call respondents and ask them to respond to the survey. That's time consuming and could be expensive, but certainly increases response rate.

Sean: Right. Like if you only have a handful of clients, there's layers of push that you can do, right? The first layer is the email invitation, a reminder if you're not getting what you need. Then it could be more of an all-hands-on-deck type situation where you're giving friendly calls to people and saying hello and thanking them for their business, but saying you would appreciate if you filled it out. If there's a will, there's a way with response rate -- that's what I always say. You just have to know what some of the best practices are, which I think we've covered a majority of them in this PeopleMetrics LIVE!

Audrey: I agree, yeah.

Madeline: Yeah, definitely. What I like about this is how so many of these are small tweaks -- you know, change how much text you have in your email invitation, or just switch up the subject line or the time that you send it. Those are things that are pretty small, but can make a big difference. So it's cool to hear that you can get a creative as you want, but there are some easy ways that you can increase that response rate too. And actually that leads into some of the questions we have here, which one is actually kind of going the opposite direction: "What do you do if you have a lot of responses?" Like if you have a really high response rate and you're overwhelmed with all these open-ends and answers to your surveys?

Sean: That's a good problem to have, first of all, right? And I think it only becomes overwhelming if you don't have an alert management program where you're responding to customers who have a poor experience and Audrey, we've helped our clients kind of rank those people on how to prioritize that follow-up, right? So if you're a B2B company, you should be following up with everybody -- there is no ranking. But if you have a B2C and you just can't possibly keep up, then you can look at things like Customer Lifetime Value (CLV), you can look at things like spend in a recent period of time to start to evaluate the priorities of maybe an in-person follow-up versus a digital follow-up that everybody at least should get. Any other ideas on that?

Audrey: Yeah, I think setting alerts based on those things that you mentioned and based on specific survey responses where if a respondent is a detractor, it makes sense to send an alert to someone in your organization to let them know that they need to follow up; people who have problems or, now we're doing things where if feedback mentioned COVID precautions that are not being handled well, that we send alerts to people to follow up directly with those things because they're so important.

Madeline: Yeah, that's good. I'm looking at a couple other questions just about... You know, we gave so many tips today about different ways that you can increase your response rate... I'm going to combine two questions into one, but one is: "Out of everything that we have said today, what is the number one thing that you think will have the biggest impact on increasing survey response rate?" And part two is: "Looking into the future, what's the one thing you should do to maximize your response rate?"

Sean: Why don't you take the "now," Audrey, I'll take the "future."

Audrey: Okay . So now, I think the biggest thing, if you're not doing it already, is what we mentioned earlier: first question in email -- is replacing that really long crazy looking link with the first question directly in your email and you'll see a very fast boost in response rate from doing that.

Sean: Yeah, just to add to that a little bit -- and just making sure that first question is mobile-friendly.

Audrey: Yes.

Sean: So if the customer's taking that on a mobile device, they're seeing it on the mobile device, that email, that question is rendered properly on that email client. Okay, the future -- let me take that one -- I think it's absolutely having a process in place to get marketing consented mobile numbers so you can send text-based surveys to people with permission. That's where it's going to all go, and you want to be prepared for that. And the only way to be prepared for that is now -- it's like old saying: "The best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago. The next best time is today," right? So don't worry about it if you don't have a process in place right now to do that. The best time to do that is today. And start figuring out when you're getting your customers to register for something, or if you have a loyalty program and you're asking questions, or any time your customers are filling out a form where you're getting information from them, to make sure that that mobile number is included as a field and in there, there's language around their consent to be sent texts for feedback and/or marketing purposes. That will go a long way to securing your future feedback needs and communication with your customer.

Madeline: Awesome. Yeah. I want to just thank you both, Sean and Audrey, for sharing your time and expertise with all of us, and again, for this awesome conversation about how we can increase customer experience survey response rates. Everything we were talking about reminds me of my own experiences as a consumer getting surveys, and it's all about that convenience, right? How seamless is that process of, you know, can I open up email on my phone, click a link with the first question already answered and bop through a survey really quickly? I mean, that's what it's all about, right? So I love all the future thinking too on text messages and things like that. I want to thank everyone on this call for joining us for PeopleMetrics LIVE! today.

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Posted on 03-18-2021