An Old Dog’s New Trick: Postal Mail Surveys

Cutting edge is where it’s at. We’re all trained to believe that. Yet many times the new tools may not best address the core needs or requirements of the business process. New and high tech does not necessarily mean better. We’ve all seen solutions looking for problems, and many times when a legitimate new solution is found, we dismiss the old solution because it’s not a sexy, cutting edge approach. In the world of customer research — in particular customer satisfaction surveys where I spend much of my professional life — one old dog, administering surveys by postal mail, might just perform the best tricks.

The web has automated the process of conducting surveys, lowering the cost through its scalability and increasing the quality of the surveying effort by the quickness of data collection. It also has lead to a higher response rate — or so we think — or so maybe it once did. Most people I talk to about surveying want to use a web form administration method. There are strong merits for the method, which seems like a win-win-win solution.

In my workshops on surveying practices, I present the pros and cons of each survey administration method, and one of my students, Pamela Kellerstrass, Director of Marketing & Client Services for Motor Cargo, decided to conduct her first customer survey using the old dog of postal mail. Motor Cargo is a freight company located outside Salt Lake City, Utah that specializes in less than truckload (LTL) shipments. They had never asked their customers for feedback on the quality of service. Pamela didn’t have a huge budget, but she did have some company resources at her disposal. For her customer base, email interaction is a relatively new device, so they did not have email addresses for the entire customer base. This effectively eliminated electronic survey administration as that would introduce a serious bias to the results.

Pamela turned to the postal mail approach and applied her ingenuity to maximizing the response rate. The survey was mailed in a 10″x7″ bubble envelope.  Inside was a cover letter printed on stationery with a coffee motif. The letter started, “Help us wake up and smell the coffee!” Also inside the envelope were the 50-question survey instrument, a self-addressed, stamped envelope — and a small package of ground coffee, whose aroma hits the olfactory senses as soon as the package is opened.

The introductory letter explains Motor Cargo’s commitment to customer feedback, crystallized in their motto, “Determined to Listen. Designed to Perform.” It points out the role of their Customer Loyalty Manager and how the results of the survey will be used to improve service. Pamela also promised to “compile the results and report back to you changes we have made as a result of your good feedback.” Finally, she promised to send respondents a company coffee mug.

There are five steps to getting responses to a survey. Get the survey:

  • Noticed,
  • Opened,
  • Read,
  • Completed,
  • Returned. 

Consider how Pamela addressed each of these points. The unusual envelope certainly gets it noticed in the postal mail In-Box — and opened. The envelope’s contents will likely spur the recipient to read the material, and the phrasing of the letter, along with the coffee mug, will help motivate people to complete the survey. The clean layout and design of the instrument also promotes survey completion. Motor Cargo also made a follow-up phone call to the recipient list to gently push people to complete the survey. Finally, the SASE will help ensure it gets returned.

What were the results? Pamela got 182 responses out of 300 invitations, better than a 60% response rate! While we’d like 100% participation, 60% is a very admirable response rate. More importantly, they learned that customers weren’t happy with the process for getting a billing error corrected, a fact the president communicated in a follow-up letter. According to Pamela, “the survey also showed us what we were doing right. We always knew our good drivers were our best asset, but this just confirmed it. What a great opportunity to reinforce with our drivers the importance of the customer’s positive perception and how they are appreciated for their good work.”

Could Motor Cargo have gotten the same response using electronic surveying? Perhaps, but consider how many emails we all get. Do you notice the survey invitations you get buried among the scores of emails in your inbox at the start of the day? Many people tell me they just automatically delete emails from people they don’t recognize. If you don’t get your survey invitation noticed, the rest of your effort is moot. Perhaps the best way to get visibility and 10 minutes of your customer’s mind share is to return to the old dog of postal mail surveys.