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Who's Taking Your Survey? Design With These Customers In Mind

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Great communicators and leaders will tell you the importance of considering your audience before starting any endeavor. Surveys are no different, but who is this mysterious audience? What do they want from us, and how do we get them to offer us constructive feedback?

Regardless of your industry or customer base, at a high level, there are only four types of customers responding to your surveys. They can all be categorized as happy, angry, bored, or opportunistic. Each kind of respondent has different motivations for taking your survey. If you want to collect actionable insight, you must offer each one an experience tailored to their needs and emotions.


Let's start with the most fun type of respondent, the happy customer. Happy customers love us! They're motivated because they feel indebted. We may have helped them through a rough time in their life, went the extra mile to give them personalized attention, simplified a really confusing process, or even just surprised them by how flexible we were in meeting their needs. Whatever it was, we did something nice for them. Now, they want to return the favor.

Because happy customers are motivated to reciprocate our kindness, they're willing to jump through a few hoops for us. They're keeping an eye out for survey invitations. They'll answer extra questions, share names and specific details, and they'll rate us an 11 on every 10-point scale.

If there was ever a customer we could put safely through the wringer, it's the happy customer. As sales author Jeffrey Gitomer says, we've got "customer insurance." That said, as with car insurance, we can't drive recklessly. Here are a few ways to keep your happy customer a happy respondent:

  • Keep the number of performance questions to a minimum. Every answer will be 11/10, so demonstrate respect for their time. Don't ask a barrage of Likert scale questions, like this survey.
  • Give them room to write! Happy customers want to speak directly to your leadership, to share how wonderful your employees are. Get out of their way, and give them a wide-open text box. They're feeling motivated and inspired. I've had customers respond with praise, poems, and many even demand we give employees a "big fat raise!"
  • Close the loop with your happy customers, too. Make sure they know the work they put into your survey was not in vain. You can send them a thank you note, a surprise gift, or simply share your process to make your employees feel special. By the way, this is also a great time to request testimonials or online reviews.


I hope you're feeling warm and fuzzy because you'll need it to handle the angry customer. Like their happy cousins, this species of customer is motivated-on-steroids. You've crossed their path, and now you're going to get it! Angry customers are motivated by revenge. They perceive that we've wronged them, and now we must die.

Angry customers are just coming down from a traumatic experience. We've somehow broken their trust, victimized them, made their lives miserable, and we may even have even damaged them monetarily. You can expect this survey response to be subpoenaed, proving your organization had prior knowledge, before the CEO testifies before Congress.

Let's try to get through this survey without adding insult to injury. Here are some ideas:

  • First and foremost, angry customers need to vent their rage. Provide them with lots of opportunities to write free text responses, and don't limit how much they can write (this isn't Twitter). Their adrenaline must be expended somewhere, so brace for impact. Better they wear themselves out screaming into our survey than telling all of our prospective customers.
  • Identify these customers early in the survey. My Absolute Resolution question is an excellent technique for doing just that. Once you determine which type of customer is responding, you can streamline their experience and gain more actionable insight.
  • Angry customers would give you a negative score if they could. Don't enrage them further by asking a million pointless Likert scale questions. Try using checkboxes instead, to make it easy for angry customers to highlight problem areas.
  • Take their feedback seriously, not personally, keeping their perspectives and emotional needs in mind. Remain calm and recover the customer. Angry customers, more than any other, need to feel understood and respected. Close the loop quickly.


The emotional rollercoaster is over, I promise. In fact, this type of customer is characterized by a lack of emotion. They're just plain bored. Boring experiences aren't bad or good; they're just another lame transaction. The good news is, this is the easiest type of customer to turn into a raving fan. The bad news is, they're not taking our surveys. They may not have even noticed them.

Furthermore, when they do take our surveys, details are scarce. Because their interaction with us didn't trigger an emotional response (happiness or rage), they probably don't even know what to say. They've never thought about it. This lack of emotional investment also translates to how little effort they'll put into responding. They just don't care either way, and they may even feel as if it's not worth the energy.

Use these solutions to make the most out of your bored customers' limited commitment:

  • Make your survey invitation fun and engaging. Bored customers aren't watching out for surveys, so we have to grab their attention and lure them in. If you asked a bored customer why they took your survey, their response would be something like, "I don't know. The link looked kind of cool, I guess?" I quadrupled my response rates overnight, by merely changing the survey invitation email.
  • Once you draw them in, make responding as easy as possible. Remember, they have no commitment to this process, and they're liable to be distracted any second. Save their work along the way, in case they abandon the survey. Prioritize and ask the really important questions first.
  • Inspire them to share the details that matter. They've never considered why they're indifferent about their experience, so you'll have to give them a little help. Make it easy for them to identify what they like and what they don't. Checkboxes are great for this, too. Bored customers are too lazy to write you an essay, and they wouldn't know what to say.
  • Use question branching to give more adventurous respondents a choice to opt-in to additional questions. Bored customers aren't bad people; they just don't have an opinion.


Last and (in this case) least, we have opportunistic customers. These customers are the adult chat line workers of survey respondents. They're only taking your survey because you're paying them. The amount of effort they will expend is directly proportional to the compensation they're given.

Offering rewards for taking surveys is ubiquitous now, and the rewards seem to get less valuable by the day. Some "rewards" even require additional purchases to take advantage of them. Assuming opportunistic customers are even interested, they'll simply race through your survey with the minimum thought and effort required. Better yet, they may even use a cool smartphone app to take the survey for them and spit out a rewards code. You have nothing to gain from these responses. Please stop trying. By conditioning customers to expect a reward, you're making research more difficult for the rest of us.

If you insist, or if the survey is so needy that you must pay for responses, try this:

  • If you don't want ants, don't leave food on the floor. To avoid attracting gold-diggers, remove the temptation to make "easy money" from your survey. Try to put some distance between the desired action and the reward.
  • Offer the reward up front, no strings attached. The Neilsen Company, responsible for television ratings, generously sends cash in each envelope to respondents. Even if you contact them to say you can't participate, they reply "that's fine, keep the cash. Thanks for trying!" I've never raced through or falsified a survey for Neilsen because they've removed all reason to do so. Also, take a guess who's mail gets opened first.
  • Add a human element. Opportunistic customers will be opportunistic no matter how you administer your survey, but they may give in-person and telephone interviews a bit more care to avoid seeming rude.

When you design your customer surveys with the first three types of customer in mind, you'll get higher quality responses from a more representative sample. If you found this article inspiring, join me for Session 401: Ho hum No More: Re-imagining Customer Surveys to Drive Results at the ICMI Contact Center Expo, May 13-16 in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

Customer Surveys