Using Design Thinking to Supercharge Response Rates


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If I had a nickel for every article I’ve read about ways to improve survey response rates, I think I would have about $523.25. In fact, nearly 15 years ago, I too waded into the waters to share my opinion, back in the day when most surveys were conducted via USPS. To this day, common methods to spike response rates still tend to focus on tactics such as number of contacts (pre-notifications, reminders, etc.), contact method (e.g., phone, online), persuasive communication (e.g., subject line, sender origin), and incentives (e.g., cash, sweepstakes, or pleas for the “greater good”). All of these methods can make a huge impact, but have to be executed with care.  Sometimes you get the unexpected.

Unintended Consequences

Let’s take incentives for example. First let’s answer the obvious: yes, they make a difference. They make an almost linear difference; the more you spend, the greater response rate you get. However, offering heaps of cash can get expensive and dicey. I can vividly remember beads of sweat on the brow of the evening security guard in our mail facility as we fulfilled on the $1 cash incentives for the mail out to 50,000+ consumers. More effective cash “in kind” rewards have also been developed and are used effectively today. Redemption after completion approaches, as well as point-based schemes, can also be very effective but are still fairly financially salty.

Couponing can also be great way to increase response rates but can also run into problems beyond cost. Let’s take the customer experience program run by the clothing retailer, Gap. Upon buying your nice new polo shirt or skinny jeans you are given a receipt, which invites you to fill out an online survey for which you will receive a generous percent reduction on your next purchase. So far so good. The loophole lays in the latency to “your next purchase.” Sophisticated consumers can easily go in, buy a $5 pair of argyle socks, complete the survey in the parking lot, and come back in and buy their original haul of $250 worth of clothing at the new discounted price[1]. The survey process is, in some circumstances, driving undesired behavior. Instead of a customer feedback system, it runs the risk of being abused as a discounting device for enterprising customers.


Sadly, this happens more often than one would hope. In some industries the practice is rampant with bonused sales associates bribing, or even coercing, customers into giving them a “passing score.” Survey manipulation, or survey “management” as it is euphemistically called, has in some instances devolved into a micro-economy of its own. The name of the game is getting the score rather than improving the experience. The unintended consequence of these metric shenanigans is ironically, 1) potentially harming the customer experience, and 2) producing research kryptonite: Bad data.

Get Gestalt

So what to do? We should look to the design of the overall process itself for the answer. You can get your customers to respond more often by making the experience engaging, enjoyable, and by giving your customers something of value in return. Short, primarily unstructured inquiries to customers that are brand reinforcing, experientially relevant, and have consumer utility will greatly increase response rates and lower abandonment rates. Millions of people share their opinions on Buzzfeed, Facebook, and other social media sites every day. Why? Because it’s fun.

Also, if you are not offering ways to provide feedback when and where customers want to you, it is hurting participation in your program.  Multi-modal should not be something that is optional, but should be our new normal. Integration into popular native client applications is another easy way to get to customers when they want to talk in the moment.  Oh and don’t forget to make it mobile optimized so it looks and acts great across all major devices.

Now let’s dissect the second part of my thesis “… give them something of value in return.” This does not have to be cash or coupons (although there are ways to structure things better than my Gap example above). You can give them information, access to exclusive content, or just something that makes their lives easier.  Or really even acknowledgement would be better than most of the current on-going programs out there. Panel companies have done a fairly good job with this, and companies like Amazon and Netflix do a terrific job of predicting what you might like or want. People generally don’t see it as selling, they see it as helping them in their shopping. We can do the same in our communicating with our customers.  Oh, and communication should be full duplex; not one way.

Start at the End

The end is oftentimes a good starting point.

Rather than trying to augment a flawed long survey full matrices and boring questions, we can move to shorter, more graphically and contextually meaningful interactions that customers might actually enjoy completing. Take advantage of the technology out there.  We don’t have to put paper surveys online anymore.  We don’t have to use tick boxes to describe things when most customers have cameras built into their devices.  Then, give your customers something for their time. Avoid the black box of feedback. People want to know they’ve been heard and you are going to do something about it. Sometimes the answer about what to do is right under your nose.


[1] For other couponing tips at Gap and other retailers see the “CrazyCouponLady

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Fish, Ph.D.

Dave is the founder of CuriosityCX, an insights and advisory consultancy for Customer Experience. Formerly he was CMO for MaritzCX, now an InMoment company. He has 25+ years of applied experience in understanding consumer behavior consulting with Global 50 companies. Dave has held several executive positions at the Mars Agency, Engine Group, J.D. Power and Associates, Toyota Motor North America, and American Savings Bank. He teaches at the Sam Walton School of Business at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of "The Customer Experience Field Guide" available on Amazon and


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