How to Use Online Survey Systems to Improve your Enterprise

Customer satisfaction surveys and other types of feedback collection can be critical to the success of an enterprise. These aren't the formal mathematical surveys that you see in the news, especially during an election year. Instead, Mark Safferstone, the Executive Director of the University of Mary Washington's Center for Leadership, Technology and Professional Development, says you can use survey software to gather critical information from your users, customers or prospective customers to provide better service and a more responsive environment.


Given the competitive nature of the current business environment, customer feedback is increasingly important for corporate executives, academic institutions, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Executives, human resource managers and front-line supervisors are using fact-based decision making to drive strategic decisions. Online survey platforms contribute significantly to these efforts.

Keeping pace with the demand, online survey platforms have evolved from simple data collection tools into sophisticated data management solutions. They now meet the challenges of reliable surveying: They also boast robust reporting and analysis capabilities.

Needs Assessment Led to Change

Organizations such as the University of Mary Washington, have conducted academic survey research for decades. It is only in the past five years that the University's College of Graduate and Professional Studies turned from paper-and-pencil survey methods to an application service provider-based model offered by Zarca Interactive.

When we began assessing our needs at the College of Graduate and Professional Studies, it became increasingly apparent that we were operating in a dynamic educational marketspace. Consequently, how we collected, analyzed and used the information we obtained from our surveys had to change. We log, monitor, compare and create multiple reports based on what our students say about their courses, professors and their overall educational experience at the College.

With this information, we are better able to tailor our educational programs and services to the needs of our students. Many of our students are busy, working adults. At the same time, we are able to ensure and maintain high levels of confidentiality and anonymity for our respondents. Also, we've used the survey platform when working with corporate clients to conduct educational planning assessments. These are then used to support individual and organizational training, development and educational initiatives.

The Zarca Interactive Platform

As our programs have grown, our needs have changed. With that comes the increasing need for technology that is both scalable and easy to use. Since we're not IT managers but rather educators and businesspeople, we considered several options. We ultimately selected the Zarca Interactive platform for a variety of reasons. These reasons included ease of use, minimal impact on organizational IT infrastructure resources, a robust suite of basic features along with value-added premium features, high quality and highly responsive customer support; and of course, reasonable licensing costs.

For those of you who are thinking about deploying a Web-based survey platform but don't quite understand the complexities associated with selecting one, this article should help you to understand the key features and values to look for in your selection process, along with the management and research considerations when using Web-based survey technology.

Basic Survey Platforms' Limitations

The critical management issues associated with collecting and reporting survey data are: "What is the purpose of your survey?" "What data will you collect?" "How will you analyze it?" and "How will you use the results?" A basic survey platform allows you to collect data using only one or two types of rating questions, with limited scaling options. A basic survey platform doesn't typically provide for question branching. However, it does allow respondents to offer verbatim comments.

Also, due to the simplicity of these basic platforms, it's not unusual to be able to "stuff" the ballot box (i.e., respond to a survey more than once). Additionally, a basic survey platform generally requires that the user input e-mail addresses.

Advanced Survey Platforms' Advantages

In contrast, a more advanced platform facilitates the merger of a questionnaire with an existing corporate demographic database. This feature shortens the survey, which may have a positive impact on rate of return. Consequently, this may increase the survey results' reliability. Advanced survey platforms also provide end-users with real-time information that impacts the bottom line. Imagine the advantage that a customer service representative (such as a hotel front desk clerk) has when a "frequent flyer" checks in and the representative has real-time access to the guest's feedback from a recent satisfaction survey.

Such integrated information can empower employees to bring personalized service and customer care to a more sophisticated level. This, in turn, can result in increased customer loyalty. In today's business environment, gaining this loyalty has become increasingly more important.

In the higher education marketspace, customer loyalty translates into student and institutional loyalty. This enables colleges and universities to tailor programs to best meet the educational needs of present and future students. Also, because word-of-mouth marketing is so important, we frequently recruit new students due to the recommendations of our existing students.

Online vs. Traditional Survey Response Rates

If you take a look at the data on online survey response rates, it would show that most online surveys have approximately a 30 percent rate of return. This may be insufficient to meet the requirements of "traditional" research. However, due to the features of the more sophisticated online survey platforms, our online-survey response rates meet, and often exceed, the rates we attained with the "old" survey method we deployed. This former method involved mailing paper-and-pencil surveys to respondents, along with self-addressed stamped envelopes.

Online Survey Tools' Response Rates

Today's online survey tools assure sufficient response rates in several ways. First, the surveys all share an attractive, customized appearance. Second, they have a personalized invitation and the ability to issue reminder e-mails only to those individuals who have not yet completed the survey. From a very practical standpoint, our students receive numerous "opportunities" to complete online surveys from academic institutions and firms that lack a comprehensive, strategic-survey strategy. This over surveying has resulted in a phenomenon that we refer to as "survey fatigue."

Developing a Comprehensive Survey Strategy

Given the potential of using online surveys to improve business performance, it's worthwhile to work collaboratively within your organization to develop a comprehensive survey strategy and communicate that strategy accordingly. Such a survey strategy would include a survey "policy" that would address issues such as who is scheduled-and not scheduled-to be surveyed during specific time periods.

Other issues addressed would include the total number of surveys and survey frequency, anonymity of respondents and the collection of irrelevant personal data. The policy would also address issues related to the confidentiality, distribution and use of the survey results.

Alleviating Respondents' Survey Fatigue

There are ways to combat survey fatigue while minimizing the time and stress that's put on a survey program. "Touch Rules Manager" is the name given to the technology that gives survey administrators the ability to control the number of times an individual survey respondent is invited to a survey in any given time period.

This preserves the relationships between survey administrators and survey participants and helps you practice responsible surveying, which may have a positive impact on your rate of return. E-mail messages containing survey invitations deploy spoofing to reflect the name and e-mail address of the sender.

Spoofed e-mail is the first signature of spam. Consequently, so many legitimate survey invitations never reach their target audience. Clearly, people can't respond to surveys they never received. Advanced solutions address this issue by finding workarounds to spoofing, which has shown to significantly boost response rates.

Also, corporate, government and government contractors (who meet or exceed Department of Defense information assurance requirements) oftentimes have firewalls that detect and block survey links or block incoming HTML-based e-mails. The more sophisticated Web-based survey platforms are able to deploy e-mail invitations in either plain text or HTML formats. Plus, plain text e-mail invitations often can be delivered to respondents through high-security firewalls.

The Benefits of Reporting and Analyzing Data

While data collection is a time and labor-intensive activity when administering surveys, this value-creating step is the reporting and analysis that can lead to new and actionable insights for your organization. Before undertaking a survey campaign, it is important to decide how the data will be presented "post-survey."

Advanced survey solutions come with sophisticated business intelligence-type reporting capabilities that allow for ad-hoc querying, drill-down and customizable charting. Managers with a minimum amount of training can analyze and extract their findings quickly without needing additional statistical software, technical expertise or costly consultants. Additionally, the raw data may be exported and archived in a variety of formats including MS Excel, comma-separated values, MS Access and SPSS.

Conducting Data Analysis is Critical to Success

At the University, for example, the ability to visualize and compare course evaluations by instructor, academic program area and semesters allows us to provide our faculty with "real-time" feedback. It also ensures that our students' instructional expectations are met. Through technology, such as the Zarca Interactive platform, we have deployed at the University of Mary Washington, conducting sophisticated data analyses-coupled with producing real-time professional reports and presentations-has become significantly less time-consuming. It's been critical to our success, especially when working with corporate clients.

Keeping Outsourced Expenses Down

Collecting feedback from critical constituencies is becoming easier, more cost-effective and more efficient. Many activities, which were previously outsourced as "marketing research," are now coming back in house. This has been a result of the availability of sophisticated, yet affordable and easy to use, technology solutions.

Further Benefits of Using Online Survey Systems

This technology has also provided business leaders who are committed to quality and customer satisfaction with a tremendous opportunity. In the business world and within "The Academy," technology is changing how we manage, collect and understand the information we get from the surveys we deploy. From our experience, at the University of Mary Washington's College of Graduate and Professional Studies, we have transitioned from reaction to anticipation.

We look for leading technology such as the kind Zarca Interactive provides. This survey platform enables us to synthesize, conceptualize and present the data we've collected in the most cost-effective, timely and simple format. As a result, this leaves our faculty, administrators, staff and students feeling like they truly have a stake in the survey process.

/images/stories/heads/safferstone_mark70x70.jpg Dr. Mark Safferstone is the Executive Director of the Center for Leadership, Technology, and Professional Development at the University of Mary Washington, College of Graduate and Professional Studies in Fredericksburg, Va.

Safferstone designs, manages and delivers corporate training and organizational improvement programs and services for the Fredericksburg region's business and professional community. As a member of the administrative staff, he also contributes to the College's strategic leadership and provides operational oversight for professional development programs and several key administrative services.

Prior to joining the University in 1997, Safferstone served as the Commonwealth State Training Manager with the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management. In addition to his previous positions with Hay Management Consultants, the George Washington University School of Education and Development, and the Virginia Department of Corrections Academy for Staff Development, he has been a consultant for 20 years to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's Federal Executive Institute.

Safferstone completed his Bachelor's and Master's of Education at the University of Miami, his Ph.D. at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, and his MBA at UMW's College of Graduate and Professional Studies. He can be reached at