5 Tips for Writing a GREAT Business Survey

Photo over a woman's shoulder as she works on a laptop, and the screen shows that she is filling out a survey; it says "SURVEY" and the question is, "How was your experience with us? Select one: Fantastic, Good, Average, Poor, Very poor!!" She has selected "Good." Other questions on the screen are "Are you going to recommend us?" She has selected "Yes" out of the possible Yes or No choices, and the final question shown is "What can we do to improve service?" and that one has been left blank.
Does your survey need help? (Photo: georgejmclittle)

We value your opinion.
Let us know how we are doing.
Your opinion counts.
Help us do a better job of serving you.

At one time or another, we’ve all been asked to complete a survey. Sometimes we are enticed with the possibility of winning a prize, and other times we just feel the need to express our feelings about a particular company.

When it comes to gaining insight into how your company is faring with its client base or its customers, surveys are king. These mini quizzes can be designed to tell us information that will help us do a better job in just about every aspect of business.

Here’s the thing: Sometimes respondents happily spend 15 minutes or more completing a business survey—and other times they get turned off right away.

Why?

It’s the way the questions are written. People don’t want to feel they are wasting their time, so when the questions engage them, they tend to ‘fess up.

So how can you write better business survey questions—ones people can’t wait to answer? Try following these five tips:

1. Ask open-ended questions.

The wording should be objective—not a transparent way of leading respondents to say what you want them to say. Open-ended questions take longer to complete and to analyze, but their answers provide richer details and information.

  • Don’t ask: We have recently upgraded our menu. What do you like best about the changes?
  • Ask: What are your thoughts on the new menu?

Don’t assume your respondents know all the details you do. Whenever necessary, give background details to help survey takers respond appropriately.

  • Don’t ask: How do you like our new facility?
  • Ask: This arena opened in spring 2016, replacing a well-loved stadium built in 1977. If you visited the former arena, how would you compare the two venues?

2. Use simple, clear language.

A survey is not the place for flowery prose. Your respondents need to know what you want and why you want it. Be sure your questions are clear and to the point. Avoid empty words and phrases or over-used jargon.

  • Don’t ask: Just so we are on the same page, how would you rank us in terms of customer service?
  • Ask: We strive to answer every call within three minutes. How did we do with your call?

3. Give enough options.

Sometimes a respondent will skip a question because there is not an answer that fits or because it is too personal.

If you have multiple choice questions, include options such as “Does not apply” or “Prefer not to answer,” especially if you are requesting personal information.

Multiple choice questions can be limiting. Think about the possible responses carefully. Would you get better information if you asked respondents to give short answers of their own rather than to pick choices from a  list of five possibilities?

4. Avoid the too-long and the too-short.

News flash: You can’t include everything in one survey.

Tailor your survey to what you really need to know, and don’t overwhelm your respondents with tons of questions.

If you are asking people to rank their favorite choices, for example, list five of the top choices and then leave a blank for “Other.”

Be careful about overusing rankings from 1 to 5. Is there much difference between a 3 and a 4, for example? Does your survey have a way of finding out what that is? If not, the ranking is not helpful.

5. Keep it timely.

Don’t ask your customers about something that happened much more than six months ago. Our collective memory is short—particularly when we already have devoted a certain amount to time to complete a survey and want to be done.

If you ask about things in the past, chances are you will get vague or even inaccurate answers. The more common the event, the shorter the period of recall. By contrast, the more unique the event, the greater our sense of recall.

  • Don’t ask: How many times have you had pizza in the past year?
  • Ask: When and where did you last have pizza?

I’m going to let you in on another secret of successful business surveys. The most important factor in whether someone completes your survey or not is this: whether that person thinks the survey will have an impact or cause something to change.

Simply put, when people think their opinions are valued and important, they will take the time to respond thoughtfully.

Test-drive your survey by taking it yourself or giving it to friends and colleagues. Use their responses and feedback to improve the wording of your questions.

Here at Super Copy Editors, we’ve found that even a small wording change can make a big difference in the information a company is able to obtain. Contact us if you’d like us to look over your business survey draft. We’re here to help you be successful.

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Dave Baker

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Hi, I’m Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than two decades of professional proofreading and copy editing experience, including work for The Nation magazine, The New York Times, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, where I shared two staff Pulitzer Prizes after Hurricane Katrina. Today, I have put together a hand-picked team of copy editors, and we especially love working with ad agencies, marketing departments, and education companies to make their text as polished as possible. Learn more here.

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