Let’s face it. Surveys suck.
They suck to take and they really suck to design. Even a well-designed survey tends to make assumptions (in the form of leading questions) and is limited.

Authoring a comprehensive, concise, neutral, and unbiased list of survey questions is quite an art. For global organizations, having a comprehensive, worldwide survey that is offered in several languages is a must. Unfortunately, this means that by the time you get the responses back, the information is stale.

While some folks might respond to an email invitation or visit your website to answer polling questions, a lot more will only respond if someone they know and trust invites them to participate. Furthermore, some people will only respond if they are going to be personally interviewed rather than being asked to visit a website. This, of course, means that conducting a survey is a long process — and industry opinion may well shift by the time results are compiled, analyzed, and a report is generated.

Whereas a 12% response rate used to be considered the norm for surveys 20 years ago, today people are so bombarded with questions and polls that you’re lucky if you get a 0.5% return.

Therefore, the traditional “structured” survey might be going the way of the dodo – or at least is becoming less relevant and less valuable.

So, What’s a Customer-Focused and Data-Driven Company to Do?

In short:  forgo surveys full of multiple choice and true/false questions, and design very short surveys with a few open-ended questions.

Researchers have known for a long time that responses to open-ended questions yield a more comprehensive view of the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ behind someone’s mindset than a dozen multiple-choice questions.

For a long time text-based feedback had to be read by a person, hand coded, or at best, processed by software that had been extensively trained with data from past projects — and all this is a resource-consuming endeavour. Fortunately, recent advances in natural language processing (NLP) and other technologies have made it possible to analyze text-based data more quickly and accurately. Surveys focused on open-ended questions are now a feasible option.

What’s so great about open-ended questions, you ask?

Long story short, they elicit “natural language” text responses, which are designed to encourage a full, meaningful answer using the subject’s own knowledge and/or feelings.

So sure, Yes/No, True/False, A, B, C or D answers and percentages are easy to analyze and insert into presentations as quick, easy-to-understand soundbites. On the other hand, ranking and ratings don’t actually tell you much on their own.

“Unstructured data” — the text-based feedback in open-ended survey responses — provides the reasons behind people’s choices and decision making. Due to the expressive nature of natural language text, the data is far more multi-faceted, honest, and trustworthy. By analyzing the structured data (demographics, purchase history) in parallel with the answers to your open-ended questions, you will foster more faithful customers and create more value for them in the long run.

Still, Not All Open-Ended Questions Are Created Equal

As you’ve likely experienced yourself, many companies pop in a simple “Do you have any comments or suggestions?” question and leave it at that. Sorry, everyone – that’s too broad, and the only people who will be moved to give you an answer in any great detail are your groupies or the truly enraged.

Ensure your open-ended questions are targeted, but not leading. Some great sample questions for B2C companies include “How do you make decisions about your home/wardrobe/insurance/etc. needs?”, “What is one thing you like/dislike about shopping with us?”, “and “What, if any, other products would you like to see from us?”.

While drafting questions for a B2B survey can be a bit more challenging, there are still many effective questions you can ask to get the detailed feedback you need. Try asking your clients questions like “What are the top priorities in your business right now?” and “What are some of the key opportunities or challenges your business will face in the next year?”

Go Deep, Not Wide

Sure, surveys might be a pain, and response rates are at times downright depressing, but that doesn’t mean they can’t deliver value that would be difficult to get from another source. You must focus on getting quality feedback, rather than caring so much about quantity. Open-ended questions are key to this, especially now that NLP technology has made it easier than ever before to quickly understand your data. So, get cracking!

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About The Author

Product Training Manager at Luminoso

Eric Pendleton is a Product Training Manager on the Customer Success team at Luminoso. In this role, he works with Fortune 1000 companies to implement or improve their unstructured data programs, so that they can uncover actionable insights from their data, in order to achieve their business objectives. Eric has more than 20 years of experience in software support roles, including training, technical documentation, software localization, and change management in a variety of industries from martech to biotech in the US and Europe. Bilingual in French (and shamefully proficient in Spanish), Eric holds a BA in French and Psychology from Colby College, a MA in Literature from Washington University in St. Louis, and a MS in Business from Emmanuel College.