Keys to a Successful Survey Project

I do about a dozen speaking engagements each year on customer surveying tools and techniques. Obviously, the people attending have a genuine interest in conducting surveys, or improving their current surveying process. During the presentations or in discussions afterwards, I have an opportunity to learn about the attendees’ surveying efforts.

I’m always struck by the organizational duplicity applied to customer surveying — or just about any program designed to learn from customers. Many organizations say on one hand, “Our customers are very important, and we need to listen to them to learn how we can better serve them.” But on the other hand, “We will do the customer surveying effort with current resources and fit it into the staff’s current duties.” This latter tendency is especially predominant for internal help desks, which are frequently resource starved.

This is a clear recipe for inaction. Support by its nature is reactive and solving the customer’s problem always takes priority. Longer term projects, such as a customer survey effort, will get put on the back burner, perhaps to wither through neglect. (I am familiar with a company that spends millions to gauge the satisfaction of its external customers, but won’t spend a dime for the internal help desk to survey its customers.)

Why is this? I can only conjecture that the payoff from surveying seems nebulous – in contrast to projects that target improved efficiency and cost reduction. Perhaps a surveying project seems so simple to senior management that the need to commit resources isn’t obvious.

Let me outline the keys I’ve learned for a successfully managed customer surveying project.

  • Dedicated project management focus. Treat a surveying project — as a project. This circumlocution has a point. A survey project requires all the management discipline that we would apply to any other project.
  • Adequate and proper resources assigned. Most important, you need a project manager, whether you are doing the effort entirely internally or whether you intend to outsource part of it. Project management duties will consume from 25% to 100% of this person’s time, depending on the degree of outsourcing and how quickly you want to get the survey underway.You will also need a project team composed of representatives from the groups that will be affected by the surveying effort. If you are developing the survey instrument yourself, this team will play a vital role in the instrument design stages. The team should be meeting weekly or bi-weekly, so build this into the team members’ job plans.
  • Sufficient budget. In addition to the people, some other expenditures will be incurred. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. You could do an entire surveying effort without spending a cent on productivity aids or outsourcing. You can format a survey instrument using a word processor, send it out in hardcopy, manually key in the results and analyze the data with a spreadsheet. Aside from postage and envelopes, there is little direct cost. I’ve done this! It works! It’s also very time consuming, not to mention boring. This budget plan greatly increases the labor effort, and if the team is not properly committed (see #2), then you’ll complete the project sometime later this century.Alternatively, you could bring in resources for key components of the project, such as project design or administration, or you may invest in a survey automation tool that will greatly cut the cost of administration. These tools cost from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, depending upon the breadth of features you want. They are not a “silver bullet” as they have their shortcomings, which I’ll address in a future article, but they will pay for themselves in the first use.Of course, you can also outsource the survey design effort and/or the survey administration. (Remember, your core competency is not conducting surveys!) The price tag may seem high, but the cost of doing it wrong — especially in the design of the survey instrument – is much less than the cost of doing it right. After all, you want accurate data, don’t you?
  • Well-developed schedule or plan. If you’ve never done a survey project, it will probably seem simple – deceptively simple. At a high level, the stages are: project planning, instrument design, survey administration, data analysis and implementing results. Within each stage, there are many inter-related individual tasks to accomplish These may involve a number of people in the organization, so a good plan is essential to keeping the project on track.
  • Clear statement of purpose for the survey. When you start the survey project (or any project), the first question you need to answer is: why am I doing this? Is the survey’s purpose to identify customer needs, exercise operational control, identify shortcomings in the process design, or prove the value of your support organization? If you can’t develop a cogent, one paragraph statement of your survey project’s purpose — or worse, you’re doing it because you were told to do it — then the project is in trouble before it even begins. I’ve seen projects that tried to serve too many masters and wound up serving all of them poorly. When you tell people that you’re doing a survey, it’s like winning a lottery. You’ll find you have lots of new friends. You’ll hear, “Since you have the customer on the phone, could you ask them…” Resist the temptation. A survey should be focused on a few limited objectives.Recognize that the statement of purpose is not locked in stone. As you proceed with your research for designing the instrument, you may change your focus, but always come back to your statement of purpose and amend it.
  • A sponsor to beat the path. All projects have political elements and a survey project is no different. You need a sponsor in senior management to work issues, budgetary and otherwise. This person will probably also be the person who signs the letter soliciting people to participate in the survey.
  • Understanding of survey methodology. If you’re going to do the survey effort yourself, then you will need to become very knowledgeable of survey techniques. There’s more to designing a good instrument than meets the eye. There are a number of good surveying books. (Of course, I consider my own book on customer surveys best for the novice to intermediate surveyor.) You should also consider getting survey workshop training. Even if you plan to outsource most of the project, you’ll be better able to manage the outsourcers the more you know about the topic.

Accomplishing these steps does not guarantee success, but you’ll have a much easier and fruitful sailing though your survey project if you apply the above lessons.