How to Improve Survey Response Rates

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.

How to increase the response rates on your employee or customer surveys.

More and more firms are using surveys to find out what their employees, customers, and suppliers think and want. Businesses are finding that surveys can provide them with accurate, measurable data that they can't get any other way. Not only are they an excellent way to keep abreast of needs, problems and the current state of affairs, but the results are essential when making plans for the future. However, the popularity of surveys is both good and bad. It is good because it generates important information. But it is bad because the process is so popular that some people are tired of surveys and must be enticed to respond to them.

A survey must have a good response rate in order to produce accurate, useful results. There are formulas to determine the exact number of responses you must have before you can put any faith in the results, but very simply, you want the largest possible number of people to answer the survey and a high proportion of the people to whom it was sent. The percentage of people who respond is called the response rate and this rate is very important and you shouldn’t t just leave it to chance. In our experience, there are several things you can do to improve your response rate.

The key lies in providing positive reinforcement. That is, in providing some kind of incentive for taking the survey. People love to get something for free or be rewarded for completing the survey. There can be a great variation in survey response rates. The rate of return will depend on three major factors: how important the survey is to the people who receive it; how well the survey has been designed; and how long it is. If your employees think that you will not pay any attention to their answers, you will get a poor return rate. If the survey is complex and hard to understand, your return rate will be low. And if the survey is pages and pages long, you will find that few people will take the time to complete it.

Incentives can increase survey response rates dramatically. Our experience has shown that offering a worthwhile incentive can entice 50% of the people who would not normally complete the survey, to finish it and send it in. This applies to both paper and pencil surveys and ones that are presented on the Internet. Reminders can also be very effective, but more on that later.

Choosing the right kind of incentive is very important. It must be something that people want. Here are some to consider:

Money. Some firms offer a cash incentive, but this is fraught with danger. How much cash is appropriate and when do you offer it? No matter how much or how little you offer, someone will object to it being either too much or not enough. Offering a small amount to everyone may be perceived to be nothing more than a bribe and may not lead to any increase at all.

Dinner for two. This works well if the place you select is an outstanding restaurant and if it is easily accessible for everyone. It won t work if your survey respondents are from many miles away. However, you can overcome this by offering a gift certificate worth a set amount for any restaurant of their choice. Of course you will have to work out the mechanics of how the winners will be reimbursed for their dinner.

Tickets to some function. These can be for the theatre, a game, a concert, a boat or car show or anything that might appeal to your respondents. This only applies to people in a specific geographic area.

Something tangible. These incentives vary only according to your imagination and budget. We ve seen firms use television sets, DVD players, radios, computers, coffee makers and toasters as incentives.

Trips or special weekends away. If the importance of the survey warrants it, you can offer a cruise, a trip to someplace like Las Vegas, or a weekend at a special resort.

Coupons. This is a sort of catchall category and may include discounts on their next purchase, gift certificates for tapes, DVDs, books, china, crystal, tools or whatever you can think of. Just remember to select something that people will want.

But selecting the right incentive is only the first step. You will have to figure out a way to select a winner or winners while protecting their anonymity. The latter is essential if you hope to obtain the most information. But you need someway to identify the prizewinners. This is easy with paper and pencil surveys. Simply attach a numbered certificate to each survey. The respondents keep the certificate and match it to the winning numbers when the survey is over. Electronic surveys are a little more difficult, but we have found that the best solution is to ask those who want to be considered for a prize, to provide their name, email address or phone number in a separate email. In either case a random selection will identify the winners.

Now what about reminders? Use them too by means of letters, posters, announcements, emails etc. They are not as effective as prizes, but each reminder will generate more responses. A first reminder can generate a flood of surveys but this will diminish with subsequent efforts and it is generally a waste of time to use more than three.

Incentives and reminders are effective and useful in increasing survey responses and if you make a big splash about who has won something, it will increase the response rate of your next survey too.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to For more information, please contact us.

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