In the Internet age, customer feedback is only a click away. Online surveys are one of the best ways to solicit it. Done right, online surveys can help you more effectively listen to customers and make informed business decisions.

But before you design and launch a survey, think about this: are you, or is your company, willing to act on the insight a survey generates? In short: Can your company handle the truth?

"Collecting data is one thing. Acting on it is another thing altogether," says David Ambler, a partner in the Phelon Group, a consultancy based in Palo Alto, California, which focuses on helping companies better relations with customers. "If you are unwilling or unable to act on survey data, then the survey is a waste of your customers' time and an unnecessary distraction for your organization."

Online survey tools are widely available today from such companies as Zoomerang, Survey Monkey, and SurveyGizmo – and some are free. But it's important to remember that an online survey is not just a form – it is a customer touch point, and an opportunity to build better customer relationships. To your customers, an online survey, a survey invitation, and the actions you take in following up the survey in response to issues consumers point out show that you value their feedback and opinions.

Keep in mind that online surveys are merely one of many tools to gather customer insights, Ambler says. It's important to balance these surveys out with other market research, such as face-to-face interviews, focus groups, and online viral marketing to gather intelligence on which to base business decisions.

Here's how to pinpoint the goal of an online survey, who to include in your online survey population, and how to craft informative questions.

Using Online Tools for Customer Surveys: Craft a Survey Research Objective

Before you start sending out electronic questionnaires or posting a survey on your business website, do some homework. Gather input from others in your company to figure out what they already know about customers and what new information they really need in order to improve a department, product, or service. These are the individuals who will ultimately be charged with acting on the results of your survey, so it's best to involve them early in the process.

"One objective might be figuring out overall customer satisfaction," says Alex Terry, executive vice president and general manager for Zoomerang, the online survey arm of Market Tools, which provides software and services for market research. "A different goal would be to get input on a new product or a new feature of an existing product. You might also want to generate new ideas for your product team."

Depending upon your different objective, you may want to use a different slate of questions and survey a different population, Terry says. Another tactic is to conduct a broad survey over a few weeks and, judging on the feedback you get, develop a new, more focused online survey that pinpoints certain objectives.

Keep in mind that by defining a specific research objective, that ensures your survey is short enough to be completed because your customers are busy people. At the same time, you want to generate answers comprehensive enought that they can translate into actionable insight.

According to Ambler, an example of a weak research objective would be the following: "Determine the current state of customer satisfaction." He says: "Such a broad, vague statement cannot guide the design of specific questions, and often leads to long, unfocused surveys and, ultimately, poor survey results."

A solid research objective should be specific enough to help determine whether each question really belongs in the survey and clarifies the action intended, Ambler adds. For example, a strong research objective would be the following: "To improve customer service, identify the drivers of customer retention and repurchase, as they relate to widgets."

Using Online Tools for Customer Surveys: Identify Your Online Survey Population

A few key issues may impact your choice of whom to survey:

  • The purpose of the survey
  • The size of your customer base
  • Your customer segmentation
  • How purchase decisions are made, meaning is the customer an individual consumer or a business in which several people are involved in the decision to buy?

"The key question is this: From whom must I hear to be able to act with confidence?" Ambler says. "With a large base of individual consumers, you might focus on obtaining a statistically significant sample for analysis by customer segments. If your base is mostly businesses, with significant revenue coming from key clients, then you'll be better with a business-relevant sample that includes decision makers in top accounts."

Another issue that may come into play is how you intend to deliver the survey. If you want to know how satisfied your existing customers are, you may already have their e-mail addresses on file from previous interactions so you may want to send them an e-mail with a link to an online survey. To reach this population, you may also decide to have a survey on your website for existing customers to access.

Another growing option, Terry says, is to use your business' Facebook fans or Twitter subscribers as a potential survey population by using online survey tools that integrate with social media. "A lot of businesses have realized that it's cheap and efficient to interact with customers online using social media," he says. "Increasingly a lot of customers spending time online and specifically in social media channels. There are good survey opportunities with people who have been following your business online. You want to ask questions where your customers are, meaning you can post a survey to Facebook or send it via Twitter."

If you want to determine how to grow your customer base, you may want to broaden your survey horizons. "What about the other 90 percent of the world? That's your potential customer. That's how you grow," Terry says. Companies such as MarketTools and other market research firms can develop random sample populations and help compile lists for specialized market segments, such as women between the ages of 25 and 40 who live in the San Francisco Bay area, or people who have children or pets.

Dig Deeper: The Pulse of the Customer

Using Online Tools for Customer Surveys: Define Online Survey Questions

Fortunately for many small businesses and entrepreneurs, online survey companies have invested in labor and time in developing survey questions that you can customize. Several survey companies have templates that you can use to assess customer satisfaction, performance of customer-facing employees, or new products. You can also choose whether you want multiple choice questions, drop down menus, or rating scales.

If you want to customize your own survey questions, you should begin with demographics. "Determine what you need to know about each respondent to analyze results," Ambler says. "Your approach will largely be driven by whether your survey is anonymous. If so, you'll only be able to analyze survey data based on survey answers.  If not, you'll be able to supplement your survey data with other customer data you already have."

Before writing key survey questions and their answer options, define the purpose of each question. "You won't use these purpose statements in the final online survey, but you will find that they help test if each question is really meaningful," Ambler says. "Purpose statements also enable productive conversations with stakeholders as you vet the survey with them."

Watch survey wording. As a company insider, you're familiar with company jargon, but customers probably are not. "Like any good marketer, you need to understand your audience," Terry says. "Don't talk over their heads. Don't use technical jargon. Keep it simple with something that's measurable. You're a small business owner and you want actionable intelligence. Ask questions in a way that provides enough specifics that you can act on them."

Before sending out surveys to customers or potential customers, validate your questions with key stakeholders in your business. Stakeholder feedback helps you 1) ask actionable questions, 2) provide complete answer options, and 3) not overlook potentially critical questions.

"To get the most meaningful input from stakeholders, keep the conversation focused on each question's purpose statement and how it achieves the research objective," Ambler says. "People like to wordsmith and introduce new questions, which are fine if they fit within your existing research objective. Just keep in mind that every new question makes your online survey that much longer, which ultimately reduces the response rate."

A survey is only as good as the replies you get. You want to woo potential respondents by writing a clever survey invitation. "Your goal is to get above the noise and convince people to participate," Ambler says.

Think about your survey sample: What moves and motivates them? "For some B2B audiences, a summary of findings is a strong enough motivator; others might need a more tangible incentive," he says. "In either case, make your case succinctly and avoid spam-like language and subject lines. Personalize the invitation wherever possible."

Before you go live with the final survey, launch a pilot version to a small population subset. A pilot allows you to test the effectiveness of your survey invitation, determine if there is a particular point in the survey where people drop out, and see if you'll be able to take action based on the results, Ambler says. Ask stakeholders to review the data; see if they think they'll be able to act based on what they see. Adjust accordingly.

After someone takes your online survey, it's important to follow up. "At the very least, you need to say 'thank you,'" Terry says. "You asked someone for a little bit of their day. If you captured their e-mail address, follow up by showing that you care. People like being listened to."

Survey tools can be used to generate automatic responses to participants. But there's nothing like a personal e-mail, especially if you took the person's suggestions to heart and made some changes in your business.

Using Online Tools for Customer Surveys:  Additional Resources

A white paper on understanding how customer feedback interacts with other insight to create a compelling go-to-market strategy.

Use a single question to track promoters and detractors and produce a clear measure of your organization's performance through customers' eyes.

Using online surveys to rebrand or reposition your company.

Ten reasons for using online surveys to market products and services.