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How to use open-ended questions on a customer survey

Posted by Ethan Hawkes on Mar 28, 2017 7:00:00 AM
Ethan Hawkes
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This screenshot is the most intimidating screen a writer will face.

customer survey 

This is like staring up a mountain without knowing the best way to climb up it. There's more than one right way to climb a mountain (or write a sentence) and the worst part is figuring out the proper way to start.

If it's intimidating for someone who writes professionally to stare at an empty text field, how much more intimidating is it for your average customer?

Open-ended questions are a powerful tool in the survey question arsenal, but they can easily be misused. Like everything else, they have their limitations and drawbacks.

Open-ended questions share a similarity to Spiderman's superpowers, "with great power comes great responsibility." There are massive pros and cons to using them in your survey.


  • Get more detail than any other type of survey question

There's only so much a slider scale or multiple choice survey can tell you. Sometimes you just need to hear the voice of a customer.

You'll get much deeper insight into your business and be able to fill the holes your survey might have missed. Let's be honest, you've spent so much time on your business, it's refreshing to look at it from a customer's perspective.

  • Find out the why behind the answer

You may know you have a fantastic NPS score, but don't know the reason behind it. Some business owners might be surprised to find isn't it what they expected.

I've long heard tales of a small cafe in Stockport who thought they were known for their breakfast pastries. They invested all of their money into creating more breakfast pastries, but it turns out the real reason people liked them was because they had a wheelchair accessible ramp, which was perfect for the mothers with strollers who lived nearby.

Profit works in mysterious ways.


  • Intimidating for customers to answer

We've all been there. You're breezing along with a customer service survey, happily ticking boxes until an open-ended question appears.

You may let out a groan. You may have to shift your body out of a comfortable position to start typing on a keyboard. Worst of all, you're required to think outside the box when coming up with an answer. You might just quit out of the survey if it doesn't offer anything rewarding for you for completing it.

  • Can be hard to analyze individually

Check boxes and rating scales can be easy to translate to graphs and charts for easy analyzing, but sentences have to be read individually. Sure you can get word clouds to help with gleaning what your customers think, but you'll have to read each answer individually to get any information.

This isn't a problem if you get 100 or so responses, but after 300 or more it will become somewhat tiresome analyzing all of the responses.

Want other tips on how to ask better survey questions download our Ebook here!

General guidelines:

  • Always have at least one open-ended question in every survey

You should always have a place for customers to vent, leave compliments or suggestions. Sometimes a customer experience was so bad, you can't simply quantify it in rating scales and need to elaborate.

A customer might point out a part of your business that your current crop of survey questions doesn't cover. Perfect, add it to the list of survey questions.

Recently, I've been doing a lot of research on the state of customer surveys (content coming soon) and at least 90% of them contain at least one open-ended survey question. Even huge companies, who can't possibly go through all the data, have open-ended questions.

  • If you have more than one open-ended question, consider upping the value of the reward

If you've read this far, you know open-ended questions are annoying, but sometimes you need a lot of information. To battle survey fatigue, sweeten the pot with rewards.

As Mary Poppins says, "A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down." Customers will jump through a lot of hoops if they consider what they're receiving valuable.

For example, if you're a theater consider upgrading your reward with a free bag of candy instead of popcorn to gather more results.

  • Keep your open-ended questions broad

Take a page from journalism, make sure the questions you ask can't easily be answered with yes, no, good or any other one word responses. People will take the easiest way out if possible.

For example, you want to know what customers think about your candy selection at your theater. You may ask, "What did you think of our selection of candy?" It's simple to answer, "It was fine" or "I like it."

What you want to ask is, "What is one item we could add to our selection of candy?" This forces the participant to answer the question thoughtfully. You can always have a rating scale question to gauge the general opinion of the candy selection.

Download Guide: How To Create An Effective Survey

Topics: Survey Strategies

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