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What if we thought about customer feedback the way we think about interior design?

Around the middle of the last century, the “it” aesthetic was a clean, open look. Free of the ornamentation that ruled other eras—when the value of a building was literally weighed in gold, marble, and limestone—mid-century modern was about airy spaces, natural light, and beauty through simplicity.

That aesthetic is having a moment again among design fans, but its lessons can be applied beyond showroom floors and furniture studios.

Take customer feedback, for example. Today, marketers can add more flourishes than ever to surveys. They can ask customers questions at the cash register, the online shopping cart, in an email, or via text—or in all these places. They can also pile on as many questions as they want… They have the technology to do it, so why not?

As it turns out, there are many reasons why less is more when asking customers for their input. The “decoration”—all the extra stuff in those surveys—creates areas for dust to gather. Customers don’t respond well to the clutter, and companies don’t get the actionable information they need to make real improvements to products or services—or the customer experience.

The Net Promoter System (NPS) is the mid-century modern of customer feedback. Based on the research of a Bain & Company consultant, NPS comes down to a single question: “How likely are you to recommend us to a friend or colleague?” Participants rank their responses on a scale from zero to ten, and are accordingly categorized as promoters, passives, or detractors. Space for an open-ended response allows customers to share some additional information in their own words.

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The simplicity of NPS solves a lot of survey misconceptions. These are the top three:

1. False: Asking more questions yields more feedback

Traditional surveys strip away valuable information that customers share when they’re given the chance to use their own words and focus on the single issue that is most important to them.

All those extra questions the brand throws in merely introduce bias: They’re designed to capture information the company wants to hear, but that might not have anything to do with what the customer wants to say.

That disconnect negatively affects completion rates. By contrast, simpler surveys yield higher response rates, especially in a mobile world, and verbatim customer comments help companies determine areas of delight and areas ripe for improvement.

2. False: Collecting a lot of feedback is the primary goal

It’s not how much you get but who you get it from and how you respond to the feedback.

The goal for customer feedback should be to learn what you’re doing well (so you capitalize on it), learn where you’re failing (so you can fix it) and spot new opportunities (so you can grab them). If all your survey data is incomplete or skewed, or it’s submitted by only one subset of your customers, you can’t achieve those goals.

With a cleaner, simpler survey, you get the good, the bad and the ugly. You’ll have a larger, broader mix of unbiased, unfiltered opinions from promoters, passives, and detractors. Once you evaluate that feedback, you can reach out to detractors, double-down on what your promoters praise, and apply your listening and learning to product development, customer service, and other efforts.

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3. False: The only people who answer surveys are flame-throwers

This idea usually comes out of customer support, where teams might hear from 5% of their customer base or less. The barrier to entry on an NPS survey is far lower, however, than it is to dial a call center, wait on hold, and have a conversation, or to do the same thing via chat.

If you send a survey that stresses the fundamentals and strips away the unnecessary ornamentation that makes it hard for customers to participate, they will participate. You’ll get rich, nuanced feedback your company can act on to build loyalty, expand its customer base, and achieve other business goals.

* * *

Good survey design is timeless. When collecting customer feedback, companies should strip away useless frills and go back to the fundamentals. That comes down to two questions:

  1. Would you recommend us?
  2. And can you tell us a bit more?

The results will speak volumes.

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