Use surveys to measure customer satisfaction

Surveys are the best way to capture subjective customer information about your project. Here are some tips for what to include and not include in your surveys.

Many organizations have a hard time determining whether their projects are successful or not. A couple of these success criteria are obvious — your actual end date versus your initial deadline date and your actual project spending versus your initial project budget. But is that all there is?

Another measure that should be a part of your success criteria is a customer satisfaction rating. Some people would say that you should just ask the client if they were satisfied. However, the better approach is to have a formal survey that is given to the major client stakeholders at the end of a project. Surveys are by their nature qualitative. In other words, they capture perceptions — not hard facts. However, if you're trying to understand customer satisfaction, the data is by it nature subjective. Surveys are the best way to capture this subjective information.

Many surveys ask for a combination of ratings feedback and written feedback. The numerical answers are used to drive the metrics, while the written feedback provides additional perspective that can be used in the metrics analysis. There are a number of advantages to a well-worded survey.

  • It allows you to quantify the subjective perceptions of the clients by asking them to convert their perceptions into a numerical rating. The ratings then help the project team better understand how they performed.
  • It is relatively painless for both the client and the project team.
  • It allows you to capture feedback on a core group of questions that can be compared from project to project — assuming that you ask the same set of questions each time.
  • You can get "shades of gray" from the rating feedback. A survey allows you to receive answers based on a continuum or a range of possible results. For instance, instead of asking a yes/no question, you can ask a client to quantify his perception on a 1-5 scale.

Of course, one disadvantage is that you won't typically end up with a high percentage of surveys returned. In fact, you should be happy to receive 50% back, and return rates of 25% and lower are not uncommon. However, if you send a survey to ten clients, your familiarity with them will hopefully result in a majority being completed.

Many, perhaps most, surveys are not very good, and therefore the information returned is suspect. When you create your survey, make sure that you use the following techniques:

  • Make it easy for people to fill in answers. This includes giving them enough space to write comments.
  • Make the rating scale simple and consistent. For instance, if you use a 1-5 rating scale, define the scale first and then use it consistently on the survey.
  • If you have multiple choice answers, or a drop-down list, make sure all possible answers are represented, and offer an option for the user to write "not applicable."
  • Don't ask biased or leading questions. Just ask the question — don't add a commentary.
  • Don't have one statement that includes two questions. For instance, "Are you happy with the timeliness and format of the report?" These questions should be asked separately.

There's usually some debate about whether participants should identify themselves or not. Asking for identification may make it easier to ask follow-up questions gain better clarity on the responses. However, it may also inhibit feedback and may result in some people not responding at all. I recommend you include a line for the name, but that you make it optional. 

Surveys have their place. They are the most effective way of getting perception-based data. They should be used at the end of a project to determine the client's satisfaction with the project deliverables and the project team's performance.

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