A tsunami of surveys washes over consumers

The perception that feedback drives loyalty – coupled with the ease of setting up web forms – has fueled their proliferation.

For vocal, opinionated consumers who love to sound off, these are the best of times. If you've recently stayed at a popular hotel, leased a car, ordered cable TV, or shopped online, chances are that a telephone, mail, or e-mail survey about the transaction was not far behind. For some consumers, including Carreen Maloney, who owns a wholesale toy business in Bellingham, Wash., survey burnout has set in.

"I get more of these surveys, especially from the car dealerships each and every time the oil is changed," Ms. Maloney says. "It's quite irritating. If I took the time to fill them all out, I'd never get anything else done."

Despite the risk of annoying the very people they're trying to please, market-research professionals say that companies are conducting more surveys than ever before on the assumption that understanding customer preferences will yield products and services that inspire long-term loyalty. The ease with which e-mail and Web-based questionnaires can be developed, administered, and collected accounts for much of the traffic. Coupled with more traditional phone and mail surveys, their prevalence has produced a certain degree of survey glut, these experts say.

"There is more surveying going on, and we expect that it'll continue to increase exponentially over time," says Elyse Gammer, operations officer for the Marketing Research Association in Glastonbury, Conn. "It costs so much more to acquire a new customer than it does to please the ones you already have. Why wouldn't you work to keep them?"

While no organization tracks the exact number of customer surveys businesses send out each year, ESOMAR, the international market-research trade association, estimates that worldwide market research spending exceeded $23 billion in 2005, which equates to an inflation-adjusted annual growth rate of 3 percent. The group indicates that online research is responsible for about 13 percent of that spending.

The trend is paying off handsomely for market-research firms specializing in survey development. Charles Cornwell, a senior vice president at TNS Custom Research North America, reports that business in his stakeholder-management division, which creates and conducts surveys, has increased 20 to 30 percent over the past two years.

That growth, he says, stems not just from the service and hospitality companies that serve consumers directly, but also from law firms, consumer-product manufacturers, business-to-business enterprises, and government agencies that are surveying clients, suppliers, and employees to gauge how well their organizations are performing overall.

"Companies are doing this on a much more frequent basis now, and they're using surveys as more of a performance-management tool; they tie the results to managers' compensation," Mr. Cornwell says, adding that TNS itself conducts client-satisfaction surveys each month "to figure out what we need to be doing better."

So what, exactly, have companies done with these massive survey-data stockpiles?

At cable TV giant Comcast Corp., which surveys between 10,000 and 15,000 customers each month by phone, customer feedback has resulted in a more accommodating installation schedule, according to Tina Waters, senior vice president of customer service operations in Philadelphia. As a result, some customers who sign up for cable TV or broadband Internet service may receive a visit from a technician on Saturday afternoon or at 7 p.m. on a weeknight. "What we try to do is get enough information in enough detail that we can use it for business-process improvements and as a coaching tool to share with our employees," Ms. Waters says.

Wells Fargo, which completes more than 50,000 customer surveys each month through its bank branches, has used customers' comments to institute more stringent new wait-time standards intended to improve customer satisfaction, according to a company spokeswoman in San Francisco.

While most researchers agree that such surveys provide some insight into the customer mindset, others believe the instruments are inherently flawed, and that their rapid proliferation may be contributing to the "survey burnout" that can lead to an overall drop in response rates.

"It's becoming more difficult to engage with people in a traditional way, by asking a question and getting an answer," says Laurent Florès, CEO of CRM Metrix, a market-research firm in Secaucus, N.J.

"The more surveys people have completed, the less likely it is that they will be willing to accept doing yet another one," adds Priya Raghubir, an associate professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. "The problem is that you're trying to get them to respond to something they're not particularly interested in. So you wind up hearing from a tiny cross-section of people who either love you or hate you, as opposed to the large chunk of people in the middle."

To secure a wider range of customer participation, companies should approach consumers only occasionally and keep questionnaires short and simple, she says.

"There is an art associated with how you draw people into your data-collection efforts, just as there is an art to advertising," Ms. Raghubir says. "As long as a company is doing it right, they will get good responses, just like good ads do."

Risks and rewards: What to ask before doing a survey

Companies in a wide variety of industries are using surveys to get you to put in your two cents. But what do you get out of the arrangement?

Some companies, including Gap Inc. and Jack in the Box Inc., offer incentives for completing surveys, such as coupons for discount merchandise or the chance to win a cash prize. But such offers typically don't adequately compensate consumers for their time, says Priya Raghubir, associate professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. "You're constantly battling with making the benefit for the respondent higher than the potential cost," she says.

If the rewards are mostly unremarkable, the risks are not. Earlier this year, an e-mail "phishing" scam targeting Chase bank customers offered an opportunity to claim $20 in exchange for participating in a phony survey whose true intent was to get people to disclose personal information with the potential to facilitate identity theft.

Less nefarious, but still unethical, are schemes that use a survey as a backdoor means of raising funds or selling a product or service. "There are people out there who do sales and fundraising under the guise of research," says Elyse Gammer, operations officer for the Marketing Research Association. "They pretend it's a poll. But this is strictly forbidden by legitimate marketing researchers.

"If anyone calls you without your having contacted them and asks you for personal information, it's not a legitimate survey. And if they're selling something, it's not a legitimate survey," Ms. Gammer says.

In 2003, the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, Va., received a number of complaints about telemarketers who were posing as pollsters, says Steve Cox, spokesman for the group.

"We tell people that if they're asked to participate in a phone survey, they should ask three questions," Mr. Cox says: " 'Are you selling something?' 'Will my participation in this survey result in my being contacted by someone who will try and sell me something?' And, 'Will my name and personal information be sold to anyone who may then contact me to sell me something?' "

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