The natural way to survey customers

The status-quo approach to customer surveys is letting you down.

A SaaS company emailed this to me recently:

“Hey RC, we notice you haven’t upgraded to Pro yet. Would love to know more about your reasons why. Mind taking a short survey?”

I didn’t take their survey. And I’m not alone. 

A 2015 Survey Gizmo study reveals just 10-15% of people respond to "external surveys". External surveys are those sent to people outside of your organization — like customers.

Our relationship with time is the primary reason for this low response rate. We value our time. It is a limited resource.

So we prefer to exchange it only when we expect a valuable return. This is why we are most likely and willing to spend our time:

  • With family — Family makes us feel loved.
  • At work — It pays us for our time. Money gives us control over the type of return we inevitably get for our time.

What is the valuable return we get for investing our time in a company survey? More often than not, it's very little.

Most companies typically offer one of three promises in exchange for our time:

  • A discount on their product or service
  • A gift card
  • Nothing at all. They hope we’ll respond to their survey out of our own good will. 

Each can hurt your brand by making you look terrible in front of your prospects. I break down my rationale below.

1. Discounts

Discounts devalue your product or service. They make prospects wonder why they should ever pay full price.  

Apple doesn't discount their products to woo customers. They offer refurbished and stripped-down models. They offer gift cards to the Apple Store — so you can buy more of their products. But they never discount their pricing.

In turn, millions of people hold Apple products in complete reverence —despite their typically high price points.

2. Gift Cards

Gift cards (specifically gift cards that allow folks to shop anywhere) are problematic for at least three reasons.

  • They don't connect your offer to your brand — unless you're like Apple, where you offer gift cards to your store only.
  • They're thinly veiled bribery — and customers know it. Bribery cheapens your branding. It makes you look desperate.
  • Customers don’t complete surveys for the right reason. You want honest feedback. They want money. They’ll do anything to get it, even give you answers they think you want to hear.

Little good comes from gift cards, at least not long term. Ask the parent who bribes his kid with candy. Sure, the child acts proper at that moment, but you just taught the child how to get what she wants — whenever she wants.

3. Nothing at all

Most brands favor this approach. It's the approach the SaaS I mentioned earlier employed.

Emails like the one I referenced earlier could easily just say:

Mind doing us a favor? We can’t give you anything, but we’d really appreciate it. 

Favors among friends and family are generally OK, though not everyone survives those arrangements scrape-free.

But favors between customers and companies? That’s trouble. Particularly when your customer hasn't shown himself to be fully invested in your brand. I, for example, was on the free version of this app. Clearly, I don't love it enough to pay for it.

“Having to ask for a favor puts you in a weak position. You expose a deficit (which the favor is supposed to fix) and you empower the other party to make a yes-no decision. Either way the other party comes out stronger.”Joachim Krueger, Ph. D.

The deficit your brand faces is lack of data — that's why the survey, right? You’re asking customers to fill in the gaps.

When a customer does you the favor of donating their time, they have leverage. It becomes even harder, now, for them to value you on equal ground.  

So how then can you access essential information straight from your customers and prospects without weakening your brand?

Bake Survey Questions Inside the User Experience

The problem with most surveys is they come out of left field — a random email with a random ask, completely off-base from your customers' experience with your brand.

But there are plenty of opportunities for you to ask questions of your customers during their routine exposure to your brand. For example:

If you’re a SaaS company, you likely use an onboarding sequence to convert new users into power users.

Every email you send helps the user get more out of your product. 

You provide value. You ask nothing in return. For example, you don’t say, “Would you mind filling out your profile for us? It helps us give you a better experience."

Instead, you say: “To get more out of your subscription — complete your profile. It gives our powerful AI platform the data it needs to personalize your experience.”


Surveys should work the same way. Provide value that’s baked right into the user experience, molded in a way that provides you with valuable insight. 

Let’s compare the traditional survey experience with an example of what I mean.

Traditionally, a SaaS company would send a survey to customers, say, a month after they complete their onboarding. The survey would run the gamut of questions, including staples such as How did you learn about us and Which feature of our product do you find most useful?

Good questions — but they lose their impact and relevance when you shove them inside a 6-question general survey.

Here's how we could drip those questions organically into the customer experience:

How did you learn about us?

Add this to your checkout experience after someone converts (to minimize friction). Once someone completes their main conversion, direct them to a screen that asks where they heard about you. Don't make this a mandatory step. Yes, some people won’t respond. But remember, you’re competing with a 10-15% response rate from surveys. You'll still come out on top.

What is your favorite feature?

Send an email to customers after they use a certain number of your product features. In that email, tell them you’re making critical upgrades to your platform and have selected them to gain exclusive access to an advanced version of one of their features. Then have them choose which feature they’d like early access to.

This provides value to them (upgraded versions of what they like best) — and lets you know which features they prefer.

The key is to bake singular questions into your customer experience — rather than bombard customers with a single 6 or 10-question survey. It won’t always be easy, but it certainly won’t be impossible.

Consider all the ways you can — and do — naturally reach out to customers, already:

  • You email them when they first become customers (onboarding/welcome series)
  • You shoot messages to them when they visit your website (or dashboard, if you’re a SaaS)
  • You (should) retarget them on social media with ads and boosted posts

Each one of these points of contact is an ideal time to gather some intel on your customers. As a result, there's no reason to have stand-alone surveys.

Integrating questions into your existing customer touch points, at relevant times based on behavior and action, makes your questions better timed, less obstructive, and a positive contribution to the customer’s overall experience. 

Better yet, with this approach, you gain insight at the point of action, rather than as an afterthought.   

Reading Mode

The natural way to survey customers