Customer surveys on the rise in race for data

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Posted: Monday, January 13, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 11:06 am, Tue Mar 25, 2014.

Not long ago, travelers just home from an out-of-town trip had nothing awaiting them other than family and friends.

Now, they may also get online greetings from the airline, hotel and car rental company they used on the road — along with a request to rate the service they got.

The travel industry is not the only one picking the brains of its customers these days. Look at the bottom of almost any sales receipt and notice the request to offer feedback about the product or service.

Consumer surveying is on a sharp rise, companies and research executives say.

The welter of feedback surveys is driven by improved technology that enables businesses to ask customers what they think at a lower cost than in the old days of snail-mail or phone surveys. Data mining also can be far more targeted, allowing companies to more accurately assess the needs and wants of market segments.

Survey growth hasn’t been slowed by the popularity of social media, either, although consumers commonly offer their unsolicited opinions of products and services there. Rather than replacing surveying, industry observers say, social media are augmenting it.

“Feedback is in the air. People are sharing more than they ever have,” said Jonathan Levitt, chief marketing officer at OpinionLab, a customer survey company in Chicago. “At the same time, competition for consumer dollars has never been more cutthroat. Brands more than ever have to have that edge to stay relevant. They’re hungrier than ever for any insight that will make them even incrementally better.”

Mike Henny, director of customer experience at Delta Air Lines, said the Atlanta-based carrier has always valued customer feedback but now has a much greater ability to gather and use it.

As one example, he cited Delta’s use of surveys and research groups as it sought to determine what its Business Elite International passengers wanted most.

The answer: sleep. They wanted to arrive at their destination refreshed after a long flight. The airline focused on putting in flat-bed seats with direct aisle access so passengers don’t have to step over one another.

Delta employs focus groups to understand its customers, but it also does real-time surveying, such as having passengers text their impressions of an airport’s Delta Sky Club lounge design as they use it.

“We can now get a whole raft of data and feedback in timely fashion,” Henny said. “The key is managing the data, sifting through it and turning it into meaningful action.”

Doug Bowman, marketing professor at Emory’s Goizueta Business School, said there are more surveys because marketing is more data-driven and because companies want to make business decisions based on facts, not simply intuition.

“We’re living in the world of big data,” noted Chris Lemley, a marketing professor in the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University and a former advertising executive. “We have the analytical tools, computers and word processing horsepower. We have huge amounts of data that we can go through and discern from a numerical or statistical point of view what people think of us.”

While some forms of consumer surveying are dying or dead, such as the during-dinner phone call at home, or the paper comment card on the restaurant table, others such as research group get-togethers are still heavily used. Companies use them to dig deeper than they can in a brief online survey.

One recent example of a consumer survey came from Hotels.com, a broker of discounted rooms for hotel chains.

The company sent out an email to customers asking them to complete a survey and said would take less than three minutes. It noted in the request that the results would not be used for marketing purposes. Among the questions: How satisfied was the customer, from not at all to extremely? How likely would the customer be to use the service the next time, from not at all to extremely likely? How likely would the consumer be to recommend the service to another person, on a 0-10 scale? How likely would the customer be to use the service when booking a hotel next time?

For all the potential benefits, the increase in surveying has prompted backlash from critics who say some of it is unnecessary, intrusive and time-consuming.

Experts suggest that one thing surveying companies should not do is overstay their welcome: ask politely, in other words, and if the customer accepts, don’t take up time with frivolous questions.

Often, they add, consumers who at first are inclined to respond stop answering and leave the survey because they deem the experience to be too much.

Kimberly Nasief, the owner of Measure Consumer Perspectives, which gathers research by sending mystery shoppers to stores, said her pet peeve is long and off-point questioning.

She says a company’s survey should not be “a tool to drive its marketing strategy.”

She advises: “Ask me to tell you how (you) did. (Don’t look for) insights about your competitors, or what some department did wrong.”

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