Killing Your Credibility One Survey at a Time

Surveys are an easy way to answer questions we never should have asked in the first place.

When did you last think, “Wow, that was a really great survey! I’m so glad I took the time to answer it.” I’ll wait…
Probably never.

If you, or your client, or your leaders are thinking or running a survey, think twice. Most surveys are a big waste of time. Here’s why:

1. Questions are open to interpretation. I’ve seen so many items that combine two or more ideas or use vague references so you don’t really know what people are responding to.

2. Ratings are imprecise. What is the difference between “agree” and “strongly agree”? Is an average of 4.3 better than 4.1? It’s highly subjective. Your audience responds according to a wide variety of perspectives which colour what ‘strong’ means to them. Don’t even get me started on ‘Neutral’ as a choice, unless the survey is issued in Switzerland.

3. Ratings don’t provide direction. Without follow-up comment boxes or focus groups, it can be difficult to determine what to do next. Ratings indicate what people do or don’t like without saying what should be done to improve.

4. Leadership is not prepared to act based on the results. If the response indicates they hate the new service program, is leadership really prepared to rethink it? Will they act on the comments?

5. Leadership CAN’T act on the results. I’ve seen leaders ask questions where they just want to get an idea of what people are thinking, even though they can’t change the subject matter. Don’t do it! People don’t want to answer questions just to satisfy your curiosity. They expect action.

6. Follow-up is slow, or doesn’t happen at all. All survey software provides results in real time. Why does it take months for leaders to release the results? It relates to #4. But even if they are ready to act, the lag in time is a sure credibility killer.

7. The audience has survey burnout. People get tired of completing questions. Particularly if the track record for follow-up is very low.

8. There is no incentive to complete it. Without a clear purpose and plan of response, motivation to complete it will be low. I always complete Starbucks’ surveys because they give me points.

9. Confidentiality is questionable. If you have more than two demographic questions, consider whether that leaves some small groups or individuals easily identifiable. If so, response rates will suffer.

The reality is, there are better ways to get the data you need, most commonly through well-run focus groups and interviews. They are more time efficient (yes, really!) and provide richer data. The opportunity to build relationships through conversation can do a lot to build credibility over

If you must run a survey, follow my SARC approach:

  • Shorten and Simplify – Aim for 10 questions or less including your demographics and comment boxes; Only one thought per question! Four or less response choices.
  • Make it Actionable – Only ask about items you are committed to act on
  • Respond Quickly – Commit to a turnaround time.
  • Collaborate on the Interpretation – Involve your audience in determining what the results mean and what to do next…which drive buy-in for what follows

Thoughtfully Yours,

Jeff works with growing businesses and aspiring non-profits to help them establish leadership positions. He also works with executives who want to accelerate their growth. Learn more about Jeff here.