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Tweak Your Company Survey to Find Out What the Customer Actually Experiences Most surveys ask questions that the company wants to know, not what the customer wants to tell them. And that gets you nowhere.

By Tracy Maylett Edited by Frances Dodds

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


I have a fat wallet.

Yet, I've never been one to carry much currency. I'm also not a roaming financial fortress of credit and debit cards. But I've become a character straight out of a Seinfeld episode -- I'm "fat wallet guy."

I wish I could say my wallet housed thousands in cash. Truth is, I'm not the guy you want to mug. Four kids quickly clean out any bills that might temporarily find their way into my billfold. Actually, my wallet is full of receipts. As I pull the receipts out to account for my spending, I notice that the actual item and spending tally is less than 10 percent of the receipt itself. Nearly 90 percent of this valuable paper real estate is taken up by requests to answer the question: "How was your experience today?"

Related: 3 Fundamentals of Better Customer Experiences

The customer survey

Often, when I dine out, I'm asked to complete an online survey on my dining experience. Nearly every time I make a purchase in a retail store, I receive a 15-inch-long receipt, telling me they value my feedback and asking me to comment on my shopping experience.

I often complete the survey -- it's hard to resist when they entice me with offers of gift card drawings and restaurant appetizers on my next visit (Full disclosure: I won $100 at a sporting goods store once, and I can typically respond with a "yes" when they ask me if I "want fries with that" -- after all, they're free because I gave my valued opinion).

But here's the problem. The customer experience survey is rarely about me, the customer. It's about the company. It's a company survey, not a customer survey.

I travel several times each month and generally find myself flying the same airline, due to location and flight schedule. Each week for the past five weeks, I've been emailed a link for a Customer Experience Survey from the airline. It's the same survey each time, with an occasional slight variation in the way questions are asked:

  • Were the gate agents friendly?
  • Were the flight attendants helpful?
  • Did the pilots greet you on the way out?
  • Was the cabin clean?

On the surface, that appears to make sense. After all, isn't that a big part of my experience with the company? Yes, it is. But that's not my customer experience.

My customer experience looks more like this: Four weeks ago, the woman next to me secretly doubled over and inhaled an e-cigarette while no one was looking. Three weeks ago, I was put in a middle seat between two larger individuals that filled all three seats in the row before I even sat down. I ended up standing in the isle most of the flight in order to give us all some breathing room. My next trip was pleasant, except for the one-hour delay due to a last-minute aircraft coffee maker repair before we taxied to the runway.

I thought that last week was going to be uneventful, and our plane even landed a few minutes early -- until we learned that there was already a delayed aircraft at our gate, and that we would be sitting for another 30 minutes before we could disembark.

Now, before I'm accused of attacking smokers, coffee drinkers, airline workers and large people (I'm not a small guy myself) -- I'm not. However, it gives you a taste of my customer experience. Unfortunately for the airline, they will never know that. Their surveys were about areas that were important to them -- not to me. Five surveys later, they have no idea that I had a poor customer experience and that I now look for any excuse not to fly that airline. But they do know that the gate agents were friendly and that I heard the announcement (five times now) that I could earn frequent flyer miles by signing up for their credit card.

Customer experience surveys are typically more about the company experience than about the customer experience. These surveys ask questions that the company wants to know, not about what the customer wants to tell them. And the company survey gets us nowhere.

Related: 5 Cool Things You Can Do With Customer Feedback

The employee survey

Another example of a company survey is the employee engagement survey. Unfortunately, the same irrationality used by many companies for the customer experience survey is the same illogical methodology used for their employee surveys. The survey is about the company, not the employee.

At my firm, we are often asked to work with companies to enhance employee engagement and the employee experience. Often, it's in response to an annual survey they have conducted for a number of years. As we review the results of their survey, the problem sometimes becomes clear without even seeing the employee responses. The questions themselves tell us a great deal -- this company is more concerned about finding out the information that they want to know, versus what the employee wants to tell them.

Take, for example, a recent company we worked with that had just acquired three other companies, more than doubling the size of the company overnight. The company asked the standard questions, and got the standard responses. What they didn't ask was what the employees wanted to tell them.

Because they stuck with a standard set of questions about the employee view of the company, they had a great company survey, but a poor employee survey. What the employees wanted to tell the company was that they feared for their jobs. Would they be replaced by the new employees? Would they have the same policies? Would they have a new boss? Would they be forced to move? They had questions for which they likely won't receive answers for some time. At least not in response to the survey.

Unfortunately, the company now knew that the employees liked their current benefits package but not that they were looking at a possible mass employee departure. What they had was a company survey, not an employee survey.

Don't even ask

So don't ask me whether or not I like the new foosball table in the break room. Yeah, it's cool, but wouldn't you rather know how I feel about the layoffs that took place last month -- and whether I plan on sticking around? Or about what kind of work environment my boss creates for me? Do you want to know if I'm really engaged in what I do? Find out what's on my mind as an employee, not what's on your mind as a company.

And while we're on the topic, don't give me a customer survey if all you want to know about is whether I was offered your new McWhatever as part of my breakfast options, when what I really want to tell you that your shift manager just snubbed the customer in front of me.

Besides, I don't need any more surveys adding reams of paper to my billfold. There's not enough room for me, the corpulent passengers next to me, the e-smoker and my fat wallet in the same row anyway.

Related: 3 Ways to Reveal the Hidden Causes of Customer Anxiety

Tracy Maylett

CEO of management consulting firm DecisionWise

Tracy Maylett, Ed.D is CEO of employee engagement consulting firm DecisionWise and author of the books, MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement and The Employee Experience.

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