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Why customer surveys are dying a death…

I recently stayed in a hotel that is a member of a large international chain of reputable hotels.

Despite giving the receptionist all my details and a copy of the reservation, check-in took almost 15 minutes. Either the receptionist was distracted or plainly just not listening, but the questions I was being asked in order to find my reservation were all answered in the document I had provided her with. It was not the quick experience I had been looking for.

My next interaction with a human being was when I was looking for a bottle opener. A few (pre-ordered) beers had been left in my room prior to arrival (much prior as the ice had already melted and the bottles were swimming in the ice bucket…), but there was no bottle opener in the room. I looked in and around the mini-bar…nothing. I called the number listed on the telephone for assistance, but that went unanswered. I went down to the bar and asked for a bottle opener. I was told to look in the mini-bar. I had already said that I had looked in there. “You’re sure it’s not there?” (Cue rolling eyes) Finally, and almost begrudgingly, I was given a bottle opener.

Lastly, I had pre-confirmed a late check-out before arriving (against payment). Before I went back to the room in the afternoon of my last day, I asked at the reception if my key would still work. Despite all the technology available, hotels still appear to be unable to distinguish which rooms have late check-out and deactivate your key at check-out time regardless. I was told my key would work. Of course, when I arrived at the room, it wouldn’t work, and I had to go back down to reception.

From a maintenance perspective, the door to my room wouldn’t lock without me having to forcefully lift the door to align the locking bolt with the recess in the door frame. I only discovered it the first night, just before I turned in. I had already unpacked my stuff, so made the best of it. That’s not really relevant to this post, but just to depict the overall experience.

A few days after I had arrived home, I received a survey from the hotel. I answered it with details of my experiences. The hotel itself was pleasant enough. It was well-located, the air-conditioning functioned well and the room was clean and well-lit. The breakfast buffet was actually really good. In any case, the overall experience wasn’t disastrous, and my evaluation echoed that. But, I did take the time to expand on the issues that had bothered me, specifically that every interaction with a human being had been a failure.

About a week later, I received a reply.


Thank you for taking the time to share your feedback from your visit to the XXX Hotel.

We are delighted to read from your review that you had enjoyed your recent stay with us and we also appreciate you pointing out the excellent service you received from our ambassadors.

Please accept my sincere apologies for the shortfalls you encountered as you have mentioned, and those points will be highly taken under consideration and informed to the concerned department heads to seek a prompt improvement.”

I read that and I’m immediately thinking to myself: how on earth did they get the impression that I was delighted and pointing out excellent service? My only interactions with human beings had been total and utter failures. Had anyone actually read what I had written?

This is why customers are not responding to surveys

You will read countless posts on social media about how surveys are a dying breed and how response rates are deteriorating. Is it any wonder? Will I respond next time that a hotel from that chain asks me for my opinion? Probably not. Why would I? It’s obvious that the person who read my comments, if anyone did, was clearly not interested in what I had to say or wilfully misinterpreted my comments for their own benefit.

This is why customers no longer respond to surveys. For the most part, they are a waste of time. Customers will get a canned response or a response that bears absolutely no relation to the comments that were made, or no response at all. This is an irritant and most customers just won’t bother again. Response rates slowly decline to the point that surveys become irrelevant. Unprofessional and, yes, incompetent use of survey tools is killing surveys off. Customers are becoming jaded and just hit the "Delete" button when they get a survey in their Inbox. And who could blame them?

Woman with her hands over her eyes. Caption: "If you aren't going to listen or do anything about it, don't bother asking customers what they think!"

It needn’t be so!

I say, “for the most part a waste of time" because there are exceptions. There are (a few) companies out there that will respond to survey feedback and seek to resolve issues. Unfortunately, they are few and far between. I’m not talking about responding to direct complaints (that is another subject entirely, although also well worth discussing), but actually responding to issues raised in a customer feedback survey. Over a period of some 20 years, I have only twice had responses to negative feedback, and that is an extremely poor performance. And just to give credit where credit is due, these two companies were Hertz UK and the Hyatt Regency in Casablanca.

When I was responsible for ABB’s customer feedback programme, following up with customers who had given negative feedback was an integral part of our programme, and it was tracked. We used NPS (although for this particular topic of follow-up, the metric is unimportant), and it didn’t matter whether the customer was a promoter, passive, or detractor, negative comments were always responded to in person. Always. No exceptions. If a customer had not been contacted at least 24 hours before the follow-up deadline, the Managing Director of the respective country organization was involved. If the customer was not contacted by the deadline, the issue would have landed on the CEO's desk. I say "would" because none ever did. But everyone within the company knew what the consequences would have been. And nobody was looking for that kind of management attention!

When we started our programme, we had many customers who would just respond to the email asking why they should bother completing the survey as nobody was going to read their feedback anyway. Each of those emails got a personal email from me explaining that this was not the case and that all feedback was read and processed by a human. In the majority of cases, this was their account manager or sales representative responsible for their account.

While response rates were low to begin with, once customers had experienced the process themselves and seen the response, they saw the survey as the basis for a dialogue with our company and the response rates increased steadily over the years to well over 30%. If someone wanted to opt-out, we asked why. In this way, we also received valuable feedback from those customers that remained frustrated with us for one reason or another and were able to follow up also.

Can data / AI replace surveys?

So, the consensus on social media appears to be that surveys are dying… (or in my opinion, being killed off by those that abuse and misuse them). I see many consultants or “thought leaders” saying that in future, with data and AI, companies won’t need surveys anymore and won’t even have to talk to customers to know what is going on.

I realise that “survey slapping” customers (thanks to Alan Hale for that term) is not the way to go in B2B. Yes, if the programme is executed well (as ABB’s programme was, in my opinion) surveys can act as a basis for one-on-one discussions with customers. The survey feedback already provides you with an idea of where that discussion may want to focus, but personal conversations with customers have a way of revealing many new insights if customers feel that they are not wasting their breath.

But, in a B2C environment, taking my hotel experience as an example, how is the hotel actually going to know what is going wrong in their operation without actually getting survey feedback from customers? My good friend Federico Cesconi, CEO of Sandsiv (, recently shared with me some work that his company has done using ChatGPT to analyse customer reviews. The results were impressive. Perhaps, in a B2C setting, customers are happier to vent online because a) they don't expect a response from companies anyway 2) they feel they are doing a service to other consumers by pointing out great (or lousy) service. A comment such as the following: “Whilst your facilities may be satisfactory, although sometimes in need of repair, your staff need remedial training in how to communicate with customers” would clearly be picked up and drawn into the mix. That's a positive and a definite win, but I'm not certain that it will make any contribution to companies actually responding to customers any more frequently in a service recovery attempt. I actually have my doubts as this will place another buffer between the customer and the company. And of course, it relies on the willingness of the customer to actually publish a review online.

My conclusion is that in a B2B setting, a programme of face-to-face interviews and well-designed surveys will still provide the best results for companies wishing to find out exactly what their customers' needs and expectations are, and how the company is measuring up against these expectations. It also allows companies to keep their finger on the pulse of ever-changing markets, giving them an opportunity to react quickly and remain aligned with customer requirements. In B2B the personal relationship is still a quintessential part of business and anything that weakens or dilutes that relationship should be avoided.

In a B2C setting, the survey as a method for acquiring customer feedback has been killed off by the manner in which it has been (mis)used in the past. Customers now view surveys as a burden, an inconvenience, as spam. The attitude of "Let's find out what our customers think, but we probably won't do anything with it anyway" has become too commonplace and is now the rule rather than the exception. This means that companies will have to rely on behavioural data from online transactions and from online reviews and feedback, such as those used in the Sandsiv study. But with many complaints already being heard about fake reviews, one may wonder how long it will be before there is a debate regarding the quality of such data. Are companies already being handed their next "Get out of Jail Free" card: Data Quality?

"Get out of Jail Free card"
Data Quality: the next "Get out of Jail Free" card?

It won't take long for methods such as the ChatGPT analysis to embed themselves. They are (relatively) easy to implement and do not require much in the way of resources. But for now, my take on this is, companies that really want to know what their customers are thinking will have well-designed surveys in place, hand-in-hand with robust follow-up and continuous improvement processes (Bain Closed Loop anyone?). And those that don’t will continue to “survey slap” us until someone figures out that a survey with a single-digit response rate is a waste of time and resources.

If you are looking to establish a programme to acquire customer feedback data, or would like to improve the system you already have in place, don't hesitate to contact us and explore how we can help you achieve the best results!

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