By WILLIAM GRIMES, nytimes.com
A commercial transaction, in its simplest form, involves a customer paying for goods or services. But these days, that is just the first step.
Businesses want your opinion of them, too, and their requests for feedback, like relentless tugs on the sleeve, now seem to come with every purchase, every call to a customer service department and every click of a mouse that is followed with a pop-up ad pleading with users to take a survey about the “Web site experience.”
On the telephone, in the mail, on their computers, smartphones and iPads, American consumers are being solicited as never before to express their feelings about coffeemakers, hand creams, triple-bypass operations, veterinarians, dry cleaners and insurance agents.
One reason is that software companies like SurveyGizmo and QuestionPro have made it possible for small companies to create customer surveys at a fraction of the cost of traditional surveys done by established research companies. Businesses of all sizes, desperate to lock in customer loyalty, see surveys as a window into the emotional world of their customers and a database that will offer guidance on how to please them.
“It’s like the gold rush now,” said Jonathan D. Barsky, a founder of Market Metrix, which develops systems for measuring customer satisfaction in the hospitality industry. “Anyone who can craft a customer survey and throw it on the Internet is doing it.”
There is no way to determine exactly how many consumer satisfaction surveys are completed each year, but Mindshare Technologies, a small company that conducts and analyzes on-the-spot electronic surveys, says it completes 175,000 surveys every day, or more than 60 million annually.
ForeSee, an offshoot of the American Customer Satisfaction Index in Ann Arbor, Mich., a company that measures consumer sentiment about business and government, says it collected 15 million surveys in 2011.
Consumer patience may be fraying under the onslaught. The constant nagging has led to a condition known as survey fatigue and declining response rates over the last decade.
“The frequent requests to fill out these surveys, especially with no incentives, have been so annoying that people just stop doing it,” said Richard L. Oliver, a professor of management at Vanderbilt University and the author of the textbook “Satisfaction: A Behavioral Perspective on the Consumer” (McGraw Hill, 1996). “In the old days, you felt as though you had been selected to represent the community, or even the nation. But this is the information age, and people know their information is worth something.”
If customers balk at taking what can feel like an SAT test, the fault may lie with the surveys themselves. Many businesses, often against the advice of the experts they have hired to construct their questionnaires, cannot resist the urge to ask, ask and ask yet again. Exasperated consumers, assured that the survey will take only five minutes to complete, often bail out as they approach the 10-minute mark.
Kimberly Nasief, the owner of Measure Consumer Perspectives, a company that sends mystery shoppers into stores, fills out customer satisfaction surveys out of professional interest. She recently wrote a screed on her blog, Service Witch, about the excessive length and lack of focus in most online surveys.
“The one that broke my back was a survey for Babies ‘R’ Us,” she said in an interview. “I wrote a blog entry, ‘Infant Who Begins Babies “R” Us Customer Satisfaction Survey Dies of Old Age.’ ”
In an act of revenge, she has posted videos on YouTube showing the painful process of filling out her least favorite surveys, from Walmart, Wendy’s, Continental Airlines, and Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores — this last is an epic requiring two videos.
To counter survey fatigue, companies are pressing consumers with renewed urgency. On their register receipts, stores like Walmart, Petco and Rite Aid include a Web address and an invitation to fill out a survey, with the chance to win a prize. At Staples, the prize is a $5,000 store card.
In the auto industry, which tries to measure customer satisfaction at every possible stage, from the first tentative Web search to the last service visit, the assessment ritual can become a kind of performance.
Sales representatives have been known to show pictures of their wives and children as they plead for a favorable review in their dealership’s satisfaction survey. Some show their customers a sample survey already ticked off with top marks in every rating category. Dealers sometimes throw in a free tank of gas or a free oil change as a quid pro quo.
Pressure tactics have crept into other industries as well. Cable technicians, after completing an installation or repair, often call into the head office to report and then hand their cellphone over to the customer for a quick round of questioning about the service, an awkward conversation with the technician standing a few feet away.
Sales clerks who once concluded a transaction with “Have a nice day” now plead with customers to fill out surveys and award good marks because “my job depends on it.”
For beleaguered consumers, the forecast looks grim: more questionnaires. Although businesses now harvest a wealth of information on social media and opinion sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, they are unlikely to abandon the customer satisfaction surveys, for at least two reasons.
“From social media you can gauge sentiment and to a lesser extent underlying emotional content,” said Leonard Murphy, who writes for the marketing blog GreenBook. “But you won’t be able to determine why the customer feels that way. A survey gives you the opportunity to dig deeper.”
Traditional surveys are also deeply embedded in the salary and bonus structures of big companies, which have accumulated decades’ worth of information and statistics that analysts use for year-to-year comparisons.
There may be a third powerful force that will keep the consumer survey alive — the cult of the personal opinion and information exchange that Internet culture has nourished among younger Americans.
“Young people send and receive communications at a rate we’ve never seen before,” said Claes G. Fornell, founder of the American Customer Satisfaction Index and a professor at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.
“They don’t seem to mind answering surveys if they’re not too long,” he added. “When you think about it, the whole concept of social media is, I’m going to give my opinion whether I’m asked or not.”