Our survey says

Our Survey Says: The perils of people

“Is anyone else getting totally fed up of being asked to rate absolutely everything they buy online? I’ve just been asked to rate my purchase of a lightbulb. What on earth can I say about a lightbulb?” – Anon, via Twitter (March 2021)

As we all know, the pandemic hit the market research sector hard, with face to face qual work shifting to online platforms, surveys and panels. Smart clients went with the shift and, with so many brands forced to increase their ecommerce offerings, quant took the lead for MR. 

Commercial companies and brands with little or no experience of genuine MR focussed on consumer surveys and post-purchase questionnaires, but is that beginning to backfire? The quote above appeared in my personal Twitter timeline today, from a normal person suddenly weary with brand demands. It’s hard to blame her, really. What can one say about a lightbulb that hasn’t been delivered? More to the point, who at that brand decided to include such a relatively trivial purchase in their research package, because the weariness such questions produce are simply hastening the day when people stop answering, as the replies attest:

“I always ignore them.”

“I’ve taken to ignoring them. They are extremely tedious.”

“They drive me mad.”

Lightbulb moment

So why do it? The answer is probably to be found at a desk in the marketing department, where someone once decided that customer insights could be drawn from absolutely everything. Their own lightbulb moment, if you will… This sort of mistaken belief that this will provide the company with a real insight is not new. It is, however, extremely damaging to not only real MR but also to brands trying to gain insights into changing customer behaviour in a world emerging from a pandemic. 

Why did someone choose to buy a lightbulb? I think we can guess and, unless there were some truly incredible follow up questions which probed the consumer’s feelings on energy saving, the environment and costs, then it’s just a waste of everyone’s time. Not least the poor person charged with pulling an amazing insight out of lightbulb quant data. 

Worse still is the fatigue it produces in consumers. People are becoming more and more tired of being asked about purchases by brands to whom they feel little loyalty. Another Twitter user responded in the original thread: 

“‘Review your purchase.’ ‘Did you like xxx?’ ‘We need your feedback’. It’s relentless and a daily chore clearing the Junk and Spam folders. Filters can help to delete at source so they never arrive, but it’s just more admin. Tiresome.”

Engaging without annoying

While MR is very used to people crossing the road to avoid a clipboard, this online fatigue is bad news for brands and the sector it inadvertently tarnishes. Yes, there will always be people unwilling to offer an opinion on a purchase, but that doesn’t mean that constant, insistent questioning won’t exhaust those who are willing to do so eventually, too. 

Ron Sellers, of Grey Matter Research, discusses the wider issue of how misleading some surveys can be in a recent report. The issue of skewed results from responses derived from a brand’s more engaged customers shouldn’t be overlooked. However, Ron explains that highly useful data can still come from post-purchase surveys, provided a brand looks at the process in the right way:

“Too many companies do post-purchase questionnaires, brand tracking, etc. simply because they’re ‘supposed to’ without any real strategy for getting valid and meaningful information and then using that. They need to sit back, take a deep breath, and figure out what information and feedback will actually make a difference for their firm and how they will use the information and feedback they get.  

“Don’t do Net Promoter Score just because everyone else is, unless you have a specific plan for using that information to make a difference in what you’re doing. Don’t track customer satisfaction and figure that’s all you need – there’s a huge difference between satisfaction and loyalty, for instance. Would you rather spend a bunch of money doing post-purchase questionnaires and not get much back in usable information, or spend money doing some ad-hoc research that is strategically designed to get relevant information that will help you make wiser decisions?”

Loyalty is a two-way street

So what’s the answer? How does a retailer or brand acquire good data without upsetting its customers? Clearly, spamming them with post-purchase requests is not the answer. The lack of any apparent incentive will immediately irritate some consumers. Agan, Ron Sellers, who has spent years in the sector, has some thoughts for brands:

“First, don’t ignore the use of text analytics on existing data or data being gathered on a regular basis (e.g. online or text chats with customer service, or transcripts of phone calls with customer service) – that’s information you already have and for which you don’t have to contact customers again.  

“Second, respect their time – don’t send them a survey after every transaction, don’t ask them to do long/boring/irrelevant/difficult surveys, don’t badger them for good ratings (which is really common with hotels, car dealers, etc.), offer them an incentive for their time, etc. It’s fascinating to me that companies are often really good at selling, such as positioning the purchase as something that benefits the customer rather than something that benefits the company, but so many are awful at using the same techniques with research.  

“What can you do to make a survey opportunity seem like a benefit to the customer? You wouldn’t make the sales transaction difficult for the customer – why would you do that with the survey transaction? You don’t bombard customers with irrelevant sales opportunities at every turn – why would you send a survey request after every transaction, print a survey request on every cashier receipt, etc.? When surveys are requested constantly, the requests become white noise. Treat a survey the same way you treat a sales opportunity.”

Taking these tips and actioning them is, of course, the next step in the process for a company with an interest not only in its patrons but also its future. After all, MR can only lead a client to the insights. How they act upon those stories are outside the control of even the best researchers.

Thanks to Ron Sellers for his help with this article.

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