Customer Surveys and Diminishing Returns

As a Lean practitioner, I am legally obligated to tell you that voice of the customer (VOC) is critical to process design, as the customer determines value.  I am also obligated to tell you that surveys are the easiest, least expensive way to gather that information.

As a human, though, I am morally obligated to point out that surveys are, in large part, bunk.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask for feedback, of course.  And I’m not saying you should use surveys.  But surveys are a special kind of problem.  For instance:

Not everyone will take your survey. Even if you ask nicely.  It’s called selection bias.  Some people are more likely to fill out your survey than others, which will skew your results.

Not everyone will answer your survey honestly. It’s called response bias.  People who take your survey may tell you what they think you want to hear.

Not everyone will get the chance to take your survey. It’s called undercoverage.  If you only ask for feedback after a transaction, what about those who don’t use your service?

Not everyone likes taking surveys. This is where diminishing returns comes into play.

The concept of diminishing returns is that the more you get something (be it feedback, bonuses, butt slaps or chocolate pudding) the less you will value it.  The same applies for your focus and candor in a repeated situation.  So the more you ask for survey feedback, the less interested your customers will be in giving it.

We return to the Dilbert strip above.  (Subscribers may need to click through to see it.)  Just the act of asking for feedback elicits a response from the customer.  That response is the end feedback instead of the impression of the meal.  This happens way more than you might expect.

How do you avoid it?

Don’t ask too often.  Everyone does a survey.  Yours is just more noise to a lot of people.  Try some other methods of getting feedback, such as:

One on one conversations with users.

Shadow those who perform the task and learn to read the body language / vocal patterns of your customers.

Ask what is important to the user, not about their experience.  Then make sure your metrics reflect those things.

Talk to the people who do the work.  They will tell you how it is going.

As an aside, I love the response of the waiter in the strip.  While it makes a good punchline, it is the job of a good analyst to tease out the “real” feedback from the noise.  Which is exactly what he’s doing.  Of course, he’s giving his impression of the feedback based on his own viewpoint.  That’s known as evaluator bias.

Can’t trust anyone these days, huh?


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