Customer Survey Tips: How to Get Customers to Start and Finish Surveys

We can’t implement changes based on feedback if we can’t convince people a survey is worth their time to start and finish. A survey doesn’t do anyone any good if no one takes it or if no one finishes it.

Four ways we can improve our chances are 1) a cover letter that sets expectations and states our case, 2) incentive, 3) a thoughtful title and 4) a pretest of the survey before we send it out.

1—Cover Letter

It’s not very different from trying to reach a human resources professional who receives hundreds of resumes a week. There’s so much noise in everyone’s inboxes, voicemail, text messages and social networking that it takes a thoughtful approach to break through.

By cover letter, I mean an explanation of the survey, how long it will take them, who we are, why we’re doing it, how we’ll use the feedback and how we’ll keep the respondents informed of changes resulting from their survey feedback. That explanation can come via email, text message, phone call or social media—or all of them.

Here’s where we can ease potential respondents’ fears by explaining our privacy policies. People are more likely to share information—especially personal information—if they know exactly what we’re going to do with it.

A cover letter is a brief opportunity to grab a prospective respondent’s attention. It should be brief and straight to the point, so it doesn’t scare them off at first sight. In the message, we can also include our contact information for any questions they have and a due date for the survey (so it doesn’t sit forever).

A cover letter also provides us with the opportunity to state our case for their taking our survey. It’s our opportunity to clearly define an incentive for them.


The goal is to reach the right audience with the right survey, so that everyone jumps at the chance to share their views. In those cases, simply publishing the results of the survey as they come in adds plenty of incentive for potential respondents. However, we can’t reach the right audience with the right survey every time.

Just because someone has opened a message from us, it doesn’t mean they’ll take the survey. We have to provide them reason to. It could mean direct improvements to customer service or a product—something that they’ll actually care about. Or another form of incentive like a gift certificate to Starbucks or any small token of gratitude that gets people to act.

Also, many people aren’t willing to take a survey the first time they hear about it or see it. And even many people willing to take the survey may forget and need reminding.

We can use follow-up emails or texts or calls to remind prospective respondents about our survey. We can explain up front that we’ll probably be in touch again (so they might as well take the survey now, essentially), and then follow through on that promise.

3—Thoughtful Title

Bloggers put a lot of thought into titles for their posts, and survey designers should do the same (for surveys or any emails or other messages they send). After all, they only have about 3 seconds to get a reader’s attention, according to conventional wisdom.

Three seconds is about enough time to see an email title and author, then decide to leave it, open it, delete it or mark it as spam. That’s not much time. If we only have a title with which to grab and keep someone’s attention, we’re up against it.

But that doesn’t mean turning to tricks. If a survey is about cars, we can’t choose a title that makes it sound like the survey is about tents. And we can’t include offers in the title that we don’t follow up on.

Instead, we can title the survey something that holds interest for the reader and pertains directly to the survey. Better yet, we can focus the entire survey on things prospective respondents care most about and then title it accordingly.


Everyone needs an editor. From the smallest typo to the largest flaw in skip logic, mistakes turn people off. Given what a tenuous hold we have on people’s attention in the first place, we can’t lose them through careless mistakes on our part.

By pretesting a survey, we can identify any errors or confusing wording and ensure that the survey addresses the issues it’s supposed to address. Only then can we publish it.

As the writer, we can’t necessarily see the forest for the trees. We may think a question is crystal clear, but to the reader it’s gobbledygook. We’re too close, and it’s hard to step back and try to view things from an outsider’s perspective.

By testing a survey on a small group, we can ask if every question is clear or confusing, what each question means in their minds, if there are any obvious errors, if the questions flow logically and if there are any questions that didn’t seem to fit or maybe need reworking for more relevancy.

A Result

Many factors influence whether a person takes one of our surveys, so if we get someone to take and finish one, that’s a result.

To get people to take a survey, they need incentive, whether it comes from them or from us. Either way, they should have a solid understanding of the survey’s purpose. Respondents should have as clear a view of why the survey matters as we do—if we don’t get that message across to them, it’s our own fault.

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