This email showed up in my inbox the other day — from a SaaS company whose product I use on an ongoing freemium basis:

“Hey RC, we notice you haven’t upgraded to Pro yet. Would love to know more about your reasons why. Mind taking a short survey?”

Spoiler alert: I didn’t take their survey. And I’m not alone. 

A 2015 study by Survey Gizmo reveals just 10-15% of external surveys get responses. External surveys are those sent to people outside of your organization—like customers.

There are a number of reasons why responses are so low. Mostly it has to do with time. We value our time— it is a limited resource. 

We make compromises for our time — all with the expectation that our compromise delivers a valuable return. We spend time: 

  • With family— because it makes us feel good
  • At work—because it pays us
  • At the dentist—so we can stay healthy, longer

So what is the valuable return we get for investing our time in a company survey? 

Traditionally, companies offer one of three returns in exchange for our time: 

  • A discount on their product/service
  • Some type of gift card as a reward
  • Nothing at all. They hope we’ll respond to their survey out of our own good will. 

Each can do irreparable harm to your brand. 

Offering discounts to survey responders

Discounts should never be an option. Not if you want customers to value your product at the price point you’ve assigned it.

You never see Apple offer discounts on their products. They offer refurbished and stripped-down models. They offer gift cards to the Apple Store—so you can buy more of their products. But they never discount their pricing. 

Offering Amazon Gift Cards for responses

There are many issues with this approach:

  • Amazon gift cards are devoid of your brand. The payoff (the gift card) doesn’t strengthen your relationship with your customer—unlike Apple’s approach (gift cards to Apple).
  • It’s thinly veiled bribery — and customers know it. Bribery cheapens your branding. It makes you look desperate. 
  • Customers don’t complete surveys for the right reason. You want honest feedback. They want the money. They’ll do anything to get it. Even give you answers they think you want to hear. 

Nothing good comes from bribery. At least not long-term. Ask the parent who bribes his kid with candy. Sure, the child acts proper in that moment — but you just taught the child how to get what she wants—whenever she wants. 

Asking customers for a favor

The last approach most brands take is the favor-approach. That’s the approach the SaaS I mentioned earlier employed. 

Their email could have said this:

Mind doing us a favor? We can’t give you anything, but we’d really appreciate it. 

Favors among friends and family are generally OK, though not everyone survives those arrangements scrape-free.

But favors between customers and companies? That’s trouble.

Every time a brand asks a favor of their customers they weaken their branding. 

This, from Brown University Social Psychologist Joachim Krueger, Ph. D.: 

“Having to ask for a favor puts you in a weak position. You expose a deficit (which the favor is supposed to fix) and you empower the other party to make a yes-no decision. Either way the other party comes out stronger.”

The deficit you face is lack of data. You’re asking customers to fill in the gaps. 

When a customer does you the favor of donating their time, they have leverage. It becomes even harder, now, for them to value you on equal ground.  

So how, then, can you access essential information straight from your customers and prospects without weakening your brand?

Bake your survey questions directly inside the customer experience 

The problem with most surveys is they come out of left field — a random email with a random ask, completely off-base from your customer’s experience with your brand. 

Think of it this way: 

If you’re a SaaS company it’s likely you have an onboarding campaign to turn new users into power users. 

Every email you send helps the user get more out of your product. 

You provide value. You ask nothing in return. For example, you don’t say, “Would you mind filling out your profile for us? It helps us give you a better experience.”

Instead, you might say: “To get more out of your subscription—complete your profile. It gives our powerful AI platform the data it needs to personalize your experience.”


Surveys should work the same way. Provide value that’s baked right into the user experience, molded in a way that provides you with valuable insight. 

Let’s compare the traditional survey experience with an example of what I mean.

Traditionally, a SaaS company would send a survey to customers, say, a month after they complete their onboarding. The survey would run the gamut of questions, including staples such as How did you learn about us and Which feature of our product do you find most useful?

Good questions — but they lose their impact and relevance when you plop them inside a 10-question general survey. 

Now let’s see how we can drip those questions organically into the customer experience.

  • How did you learn about us: Add this to your checkout experience after someone converts (to minimize friction). Once someone completes their main conversion direct them to a screen that asks them where they heard about you. Make sure not to make this a mandatory step. Sure, some people won’t respond. But remember, you’re competing with a 10-15% response rate from surveys.
  • What is your favorite feature: Create an email that triggers after customers use a certain number of your product features. In that email, tell them you’re making critical upgrades to your platform and have selected them to gain exclusive access to an advanced version of one of their features. Then have them choose which feature they’d like early access to. Value. 

The key is to bake singular questions into your customer experience—rather than bombard customers with a single 10-question survey. It won’t always be easy, but it certainly won’t be impossible. 

Consider all the ways you can and do naturally reach out to customers:

  • You email them when they first become customers (onboarding/welcome series)
  • You shoot messages to them when they visit your website (or dashboard, if you’re a SaaS)
  • You (should) retarget them on social media with ads and boosted posts

There’s really no reason to single out and cast a spotlight on your surveys. There’s no reason, really, to have surveys.

Integrating questions into your existing customer touchpoints, at relevant times based on behavior and action, makes your questions better timed, less obstructive, and a positive contribution to the customer’s overall experience. 

Better yet, with this approach, you gain insight at the point of action—rather than as an afterthought.