If you’ve been following my posts, you know your business needs social proof. This is how buyers can verify your credibility through accolades on your website and tantalizing descriptions of your brilliance on places like Yelp, Facebook, Amazon, and TripAdvisor. But there is one big mistake many businesses make that can annoy even happy customers.

Business owners need to coax customers into sharing their (hopefully positive) experiences through customer surveys. While asking for feedback is a great idea in theory, here is how it can go wrong.

In the course of a fairly average couple of weeks, I was engaged with a number of businesses. I had my car serviced at the dealership and they gave me a loaner vehicle. I visited my doctor for a routine checkup. I hired a freelancer through Elance to help me with a business project. And, I celebrated my birthday by throwing a big party at a glamorous hotel in downtown Los Angeles. (Ok, so that part wasn’t average.)

And then it began…

First came the innocent follow-up phone call from the car dealership asking me if the service was satisfactory. I said it was. But because there is a scoring system within all the company’s dealerships, the polite lady firmly recommended that I follow the customer survey link she was about to send me. Ping! Here is the email in addition to the phone call. Just when I thought I was done with the dealership, someone from loaner division called and wanted to know if my loaner was satisfactory and—Ping!—there’s a survey for that, too.

I got a phone call from my HMO in the form of an automated and completely useless message telling me all the benefits of using their online portal. Imagine receiving a call with “an important message” after having a mammogram only to be told that you can fill your prescriptions online! Then, when I picked up my postal mail I had a 4-page survey from the same HMO asking me to help them improve their service. It was very thorough (i.e. time consuming) with questions asking about everything from my check-in (as if I would remember) to the follow-up I received after the appointment.

My overflowing email inbox featured several reminders from Elance asking me to leave feedback for people I’ve hired. One of the freelancers (who I was not happy with) also contacted me directly to find out if there was additional feedback on my earlier feedback.

Then, as if to put a sour cherry on my fabulous birthday cake, the Events department at the LA hotel sent me their automated survey, the wonderful event planner personally emailed to check how the party went, and (as you probably guessed) today the hotel sent me an online survey to get my feedback about the guest rooms.

Normally, I don’t mind at all helping a business out with good feedback when it’s deserved. But, when bombarded, it can feel like survey Armageddon. The big mistake made by all these businesses is they asked for too much of my time.

Here are 5 survey guidelines that will get you the best possible feedback:

  1. Get clear on what area you really need feedback about and only ask for that.
  2. Never ask more than 3-5 questions and make sure they are to the point.
  3. Don’t require extra steps. Use the phone, email, or website link, but not a combination of all three.
  4. If asking for a testimonial, include three positive examples.
  5. Never ask what you can improve because your customer will find something to tell you. Instead, ask: “What was your favorite experience?” Hide that negative response in the “Is there anything else we should know” question.

Surprisingly, the happy customers are the ones you rarely hear from, which is why you should go after their input the most.

As for the unhappy customers? In my experience you do not need to worry about them—they WILL tell you anyway. Focus only on the positive in your customer survey. It’s better for business.

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