For the first 18 months serial entrepreneur David Niu was running TINYhr, his Seattle-based startup, the company's focus was on TINYpulse, its inaugural software product. The aim of TINYpulse is to help employers assess and improve employee happiness. 

Here's how it works: TINYpulse anonymously asks employees one question at a time, once a week, through an email with a unique link. The piecemeal approach means employees aren't overwhelmed with happiness questions--and employers aren't overwhelmed with feedback. Each week brings a subject-specific morsel to act on.

But an interesting thing happened to Niu and TINYhr during that first year-and-a-half. Their customers kept asking if TINYhr could automate the customer-feedback process in the same way TINYpulse automates the employee-feedback process. And so, fittingly enough, it was from a swirl of customer feedback that TINYhr's customer-feedback software was born in January of this year. Between CLIENTpulse and TINYpulse, TINYhr now boasts more than 600 clients, two-thirds of whom use both products. 

All of which means 40-year-old Niu and his staff of 14 employees have gained real-world insight to companies and its best practices for eliciting customer feedback. Not long ago, the TINYhr team packaged these insights into a thorough, useful document called the Advanced Guide to Client Surveys. Here are seven tips from the guide:

1. Keep your surveys short. TINYhr generally limits surveys to two questions. Remember: The goal is to get a response. You're more likely to get a response if you ask two fast questions than you are if you ask 12 meaty ones. In TINYhr's experience, shrinking the survey size can yield response rates of 50 percent or more. That is downright shocking--and profound--when you consider that response rates for B-to-B surveys can often be less than 10 percent. 

2. Keep your questions simple. TINYhr recommends limiting yourself to three types of questions: binaries (yes-or-no questions), scales (asking clients to rate something from 1-10), and open-ended (succinct explanations for client satisfaction or disappointment).

The ideal two-question survey should consist of a first question that is either a rapid-fire binary or scale query, and a second, open-ended question in which you ask clients to (briefly) elaborate on their answer to the first one. But of course, there's nothing preventing you from pairing a binary with a scale, if what you want most of all are quick, quantifiable replies. 

3. Remember it's not all about you. Yes, your client's satisfaction has a lot to do with your own performance. But keep in mind you are perpetually competing against two elements: Rival companies and your customer's ideals.  

For this reason, TINYhr believes in two categories of questions: internally-facing and externally-facing. The internally-facing questions assess your own performance. A binary-scale pairing of internally-facing questions could go like this: 

  • Have you received great service from us?
  • On a scale of 1-10, would you recommend our offering?

By contrast, externally-facing questions help you learn how customers view you compared to competitors or ideals. Examples of open-ended externally-facing questions include: 

  • If you were to leave us for a competitor, what would be the most likely company?
  • What other company do you wish we were more like?

4. Do not use average scores as an indicator. It's easy to succumb to the temptation to grade your customer satisfaction in terms of your overall score across all clients. For example, if you have an average score of 8 on scale questions, you might be really satisfied.

But the trick is to dive deeper and see which clients are disgruntled. The idea is to motivate yourself to please these disgruntled clients. To that end, Niu recommends grading yourself on a tough curve, using the following values:

Scores of 1-6: Disgruntled. Grade yourself with a -2 score.

Scores of 7-8: Neutral. Grade yourself with a 0 score.

Scores of 9-10: Delighted. Grade yourself with a +1 score. 

The magic of this curve is that it can create a negative overall client satisfaction metric, even if your average across multiple clients is an 8. After all, not all averages of 8 are created equal. If four clients each give you an 8, well, at least none of them is disgruntled. But if two clients give you a 10 and the other two give you a 6, you have two disgruntled clients--and a lot of work to do.

If you simply used averages, both of these scenarios would seem the same: an average score of 8. But by using TINYhr's scale, which penalizes the 1-6 scores with a -2, you'd immediately trigger the motivations that come with a negative score. 

5. Probe worst-case scenarios. For Niu, a key question to ask--every now and then--is this one: Why would you leave us? You need not phrase it so bluntly, but you'd be wise to broach the topic. 

As the founder of TINYhr, this question was initially difficult for Niu to include, given that the responses could become a direct rebuke of his vision. But after some reminding from his top team that leading with client solutions was a core value, Niu began to sprinkle "would you leave us" type questions into surveys. "It has been eye-opening and I'm so glad I did that," he says. "Maybe I was insecure about hearing the whispers. But at the end of the day, I want to know if they're about to jump ship."

And indeed, what Niu learned by posing the tough questions was useful. Clients--even the ones who expressed loyalty--admitted to potential long-term concerns about TINYhr's abilities to innovate fast enough, maintain its pricing model, and continue its high levels of engagement. 

6. Respond immediately to feedback. When clients reply, you need to show you're listening. Here's how to do it in three steps:

  • Thank them. Show gratitude for any type of response, even if it's not something you can act on.
  • Acknowledge their specific feedback. Make it clear that you understand their request and empathize with their needs and expectations. 
  • Share how you're going to act on their feedback. Keep in mind your clients manage organizations too. They will grasp that you can't act on everything immediately. Be honest. Even if their feedback is nothing you plan to act on, let them know their feedback has been passed to an appropriate team. At the very least, your client will feel as if their comments were received and processed. 

7. Send reminders, but do it judiciously. The last thing you want to become is that annoying hotel or airline endlessly emailing reminders about customer surveys. You've surely been on the receiving end of those. Sometimes you'll even receive a reminder after you've already completed a feedback survey-- which is nettling enough to make you reconsider your feedback. 

TINYhr has learned a few best practices about the fine art of sending out reminders. There are two steps:

  • Automated. After the first survey email has been sent, TINYhr recommends sending a reminder after seven days to anyone who has not responded. Seven days later, send a second automated reminder to those who have still not responded. 
  • Manual. If there are still no responses to the two automated reminders, apply the personal touch. Send a personal email. 

As always, the goal is to maximize response rates by making it easy. So your reminder emails should always include a permalink in the body of the email. A permalink, in plain English, is a personalized link taking your client directly to the survey. Period. No signing in, no enter your client number, no anything. The idea is to simplify accessing the survey, thereby increasing the chance you'll get a response. 

Likewise, you should always make sure that your emails include an actual employee at your company in the "from" field. Ideally, the email will come from the contact your client is working with. This way, the client is more likely to open the email, rather than ignore it as a piece of automated junk. It also prompts the client to reply, if that's what they're inspired to do.

Published on: Sep 23, 2014