Anecdotally, I've noticed a more companies reporting declining response rates to their customer surveys over the past few years, especially in low-touch survey methods like register tapes and postacrds. We haven't really seen this ourselves, but that may have to do with the fact that most of our surveys are live interviews conducted within a few minutes of a customer contact--that immediate, personal contact tends to get a very high response. I can't say for certain what the causes of this decline might be (if it's even real, and not just a few coincidental stories I've heard), but the most likely culprit in my mind is consumer survey fatigue.
Consumers today are bombarded with survey offers: I haven't kept track, but I probably get an average of 3-4 survey offers every week. Every time I visit Target and Home Depot, there's a survey offer printed on the register tape. I get e-mails (seemingly at random) from companies I do business with asking me to take a survey, and postcards from the city.
Then there's the one I got after dropping off my household hazardous waste at a collection depot. How satisfied was I? Well, they took the toxic goo which had been festering in my garage. I'm not sure how much better it can get than that.
The problem, though, is that even though these surveys are all born of noble purposes, few consumers ever see any actual changes as a result of their feedback. It feels like your opinions are disappearing into a black hole, and "We value your feedback!" is on par with "Your call is very important to us!"
So what can a company do when the register tape survey which used to get 10% response (back when it was a novelty) now gets less than 1%?
The usual response is to start offering rewards ($10 gift card! $500 daily drawing!), but that's usually not very effective, and it risks skewing the results as you get people taking the survey just for the reward.
Instead, I recommend following these principles of consumer-friendly surveying:
1) Even the shortest survey is disruptive and takes several minutes of the consumer's time. Acknowledge that the consumer is going out of his/her way to help you, and respect his/her time and effort.
2) Use the most personal survey method you can: in-person interviews are better than phone interviews; phone interviews are preferable to self-service surveys; and self-service surveys convey a distinct "we don't care" message.
3) Use the shortest survey you can, to respect the participant's time. Pare the survey down to the handful of items which are most important (but don't omit the free response!).
4) Don't over-survey. Asking the same person to take the same survey over and over just trains him to ignore the requests.
5) Promote the consumer value of the survey. For example, if the survey is used to choose "Employee of the Month," display the survey scores along with the employee's picture so customers can make the connection. In other words, avoid the "black hole of feedback" effect by making survey-driven changes visible.