How to avoid response bias in customer surveys

Posted by Heidi Thiel on 9 Mar, 2020
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A guide to the most common causes of response bias in surveys, and how to eliminate these to get accurate data.

Reponse bias.

(see the full infographic below)

For any business owner, your success lies in providing great products and service so you can gain the loyalty and trust of your customers. One of the best ways to know how you’re doing and what you can do better is by collecting honest customer feedback through survey marketing.

But how can you construct surveys that avoid response bias and give you accurate results?

Let’s take a look at what response bias is, what causes it, and how you can write survey questions so the data you collect is accurate.

What is response bias?

Response bias happens when survey participants answer questions either inaccurately or untruthfully. These responses can be both accidental or intentional, skewing the results and making it more difficult for you to analyze the data and know what your customers really think.

What causes response bias?

To design surveys that avoid response bias it helps to understand how and why bias happens and how it can impact the results of your survey. There are several different types of response bias that can negatively affect your survey answers and result in misleading data.

Here are 6 of the most common types of response bias:

1. Leading questions

Leading questions are worded in such a way that they favor one answer over another without giving respondents the opportunity to make an honest choice. These types of questions are often written to confirm an answer rather than trying to get a real response.

2. Social response bias

Most people want to see themselves in a favorable light and feel good about who they are. This can lead to social response bias when responding to a survey. Survey participants will often choose answers that they feel are morally and socially correct rather than responding with honesty.

3. Neutral answers

With neutral response bias a survey participant chooses the same neutral answer to each question. Participants will give a neutral answer if they’re indecisive, if they want to answer as quickly as possible, or if they have no interest in the survey.

4. Question order bias

The order and context of your questions can influence how your customers respond. Survey respondents typically choose one of the first answers presented to them even if the best answer isn’t the first or second one.

5. Assuming the survey purpose

Some participants will try to determine the purpose of your survey and base their response on what they think you want to hear. With this type of bias your customers are giving you information that is inaccurate, making it difficult for you to make improvements or understand what they need.

6. Volunteer respondents

Relying only on volunteer participants in your feedback survey will give you limited and random responses that won’t give you a strong overview of your customer base.

Survey tips to avoid response bias

Response bias is often caused by questions that are poorly and vaguely worded, to which participants leave incomplete answers. If you want to create feedback surveys that keep inaccurate data to a minimum and provide you with useful information you need to:

  • Choose your language and words carefully.
  • Carefully construct your questions.
  • Provide enough answers and options for each question.
  • Arrange the questions in the right order.

How to avoid response bias

Follow these tips and best practices when designing your customer survey:

Use simple and easy to understand language

When your customers can easily understand the questions and what’s expected of them, they’re better able to answer honestly and without bias. Avoid using technical definitions and terms that have no perspective to your business and your products or services.

Avoid using leading questions

Asking leading questions can pressure people into choosing one specific answer, which can quickly sway the way they respond to your survey. Leading questions are often written to get confirmation rather than trying to get a real answer. Instead of asking people if they like your product, which can lead to a yes or no response, ask how they feel about it. The answers to leading questions rarely provide you with the accurate data you need to make informed decisions about your customers.    

Provide context before asking questions

To accurately answer a question, respondents need to have some background information and context. Avoid using words and definitions that are complicated or out of context with your product or service. Without the right context it’s easy for people to become confused and choose any answer just so they can move on to the next question.  

Target the right customer audience

Always consider your target audience when it comes to survey questions – the more targeted your questions are the more likely people are to respond accurately. You should also research the demographics of your target audience group, so you can create surveys that are more meaningful to your business. Design questions that are specific and relevant to your target customers to get more personalized responses.

Each question should have an “out”

Although participants in your survey may want to give the best response to a question, sometimes they may not have the right answer. In this case they’ll feel forced to choose an answer that doesn’t apply just so they can complete the question. Providing an “out”, such as “Doesn’t Apply,” or “Don’t Know” gives people the opportunity to answer honestly without skewing your data.

Hide your goal of the survey

Frame your questions so they don’t reveal the purpose of your survey or make it easy for participants to guess. Otherwise your customers may be tempted to respond with what they think is the “right” answer. Once people start answering questions to support the context of your survey the integrity of the results are skewed, making it difficult for you to accurately analyze the data

Final words

Using customer feedback surveys is an effective way to find out what your customers are thinking so you can improve your customer service. While some participants will respond with bias regardless of the format and context of your questions, you can avoid and reduce bias by understanding what response bias is and what causes it. If you want to get meaningful and truthful answers to your questions, keep these guidelines and tips in mind when designing your next survey.

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