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What makes a stay at Ritz Carlton so special? Sure, the beautiful hotels and luxury features are nice. But what truly sets apart this hotel brand is the level of service that guests receive. That service is renowned for a reason. It goes far above and beyond an ordinary hotel.

What can other businesses learn from Ritz Carlton’s success? It’s simple: in the service industry, exceptional customer service is what brings in valuable clients and further encourages those happy clients to refer new business to you. From retail shops and restaurants to engineers and financial advisors, a great many businesses are in the service space. Even if you don’t consider your company a “service provider,” chances are you’re serving consumers or other businesses in some way.

Learning from that existing client base is crucial to growing your business. That insight also serves as the foundation for moving clients and customers from simply satisfied to truly delighted.

How can you learn from your existing costumers?

Conducting an annual client survey is a bold but rewarding endeavor that can yield significant insight when done correctly. Asking current clients about their experience allows a business to hear honest feedback and demonstrates that you’re committed to making changes to continuously improve their experience.

The most effective and beneficial client surveys require significant time and consideration. Investing the right amount of resources into developing a survey, encouraging participation, and analyzing the results is what sets worthwhile surveys apart from everything else. And there’s a lot of “everything else” out there.

In fact, survey fatigue is a real problem that you must face when conducting an annual client survey. Survey Monkey reports that approximately three million people participate in user-generated surveys on their platform each day. Again, that’s on a daily basis and, although they’re very large, it’s only one survey platform!

In order to get meaningful feedback, a survey should be structured in a natural progression. You also need to tell customers why you’re asking them to take the survey and demonstrate that they’ll see results or changes.

Here are five tips to help you create or revamp your customer survey:

Keep It Brief

The best surveys are brief and direct. Only ask questions on topics that you really need to know or want to know. Questions should be added to a survey to yield insights and responses that you can use to improve your company. Be thoughtful about what you want to ask and keep the number of questions manageable. It’s also helpful to estimate how much time a survey will take. When you send the survey (and reminders), tell them how long it will take. For example, our most recent survey was under four minutes. Have others test the survey and time themselves to make sure it can be completed in a brief time period.

Make It Easy

Similar to keeping it brief, make the survey easy to understand and follow. Avoid questions with multiple parts or components. Direct and straightforward queries are always preferable in client surveys. Mix up the questions to avoid too much repetition or monotony as well. The best surveys include a combination of yes/no questions, open-ended questions, and scaled questions. A few open-ended questions, in particular, are valuable because they allow for honest feedback without constraints.

Ask for Referrals

Surveys are a powerful tool for gathering information about your company and customers. They also can help you grow your business. At the conclusion of the survey, be bold and ask if your customers are willing to refer other clients to you. They should be in an appreciative mood since you asked for their perspective and hopefully they’re pleased with your work. A survey provides an opening to gauge their interest in referrals, which is highly valuable information. Furthermore, this request allows them to be proud of who they work with and gives you a direct path to ask for business.

Don’t just leave it at the question, though. As with other information gleaned from survey responses, how you act on it matters. Be sure to follow up with those clients who indicated that they would be “extremely likely” to make referrals.

Share Results

Our firm publicly posts key lessons from client surveys. This strategy reinforces our transparency as a firm. We typically publish blog posts that include details on how many people participated in the survey and some of the key results. We also discuss how the results will impact our business’ activities. The high-level review outlined in these blog posts is further detailed in private client communications and during client meetings at the beginning of the year. Examples of our 2018 survey recap and 2017 survey recap are available online.

Don’t forget to share the results and key lessons with internal team members as well. Surveys also offer a chance to acknowledge any employees who received glowing feedback.

Take Action

The true power of a survey lies in what you do with the information collected. Analyze survey results and make recommendations based on the client feedback and evaluation. Survey responses aren’t always positive. Negative feedback should be viewed as a learning and growth opportunity. When reviewing the results of your survey, be thick-skinned, open minded and thankful to the clients who took the time to give you constructive feedback.

Survey findings can help you validate what you’re doing well and identify areas where you can continue to improve. Each year, businesses should use their client surveys to chart the course for the next year. Firm leaders should review survey results to determine areas that need adjustments and then develop process improvements to address those issues. In my experience, employees are more motivated to make a change when they know that a new firm initiative has been prompted by direct client feedback

For example, data from an annual client survey we conducted a few years ago indicated that “client satisfaction with our follow-through on recommendations made in meetings and calls” had declined slightly. Recognizing the need to address this feedback, our firm leadership implemented new process improvements to ensure better task completion and communication between team members. Our efforts paid off. The following year, client satisfaction with our follow-through rose by 5.3 percent. Thanks to that client feedback, our firm was able to identify a potential issue, address it, and improve our client experience. This is just one example of how customer surveys, when conducted properly, will pay dividends.

The immense benefits that surveys can provide are hard to overstate. However, the sheer volume of surveys that bombard most of us means that you need to be thoughtful, transparent, and strategic with an annual client survey. One final consideration is when to send it. Launching a survey on a Friday of a typical, non-holiday weekend has resulted in strong response rates. Although many might be hesitant to send a survey on a Friday, it’s often a lighter email and survey day, which will help you stand out. Plus, clients will likely have additional time to complete the survey on a Friday afternoon or over the weekend. Sending surveys in the fourth quarter, but not too close to November or December holidays, will help you gather valuable insights that can shape your company’s plans for the coming year.