Although being invisible has its advantages in the world of superheroes and make-believe, it's a decided disadvantage for businesses. That's how many service companies—who have intangible "goods" to sell—sometimes feel when it comes to marketing their own offerings: If customers can't touch and feel a "product," it can be a hard sell.

Service firms have to find a way to make their products visible, to show what results or benefits come out of them, to make them "live." It's not easy, but it can be done. What is the best way to make the strengths of your services obvious? How do you successfully market services?

Is your business already operating like a lean, mean fighting machine? Or is there a villain making life difficult for your superheroes? 100,000 “MarketingProfs Today” readers with superhuman powers await the call to rescue you . Submit your challenge and receive a complimentary copy of our book, A Marketer's Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing that makes creating great newsletters clear as day.

This Week's Dilemma

Marketing the invisible: services

Our business is a service, and it's harder to sell something you can't see. We've collected testimonials from satisfied clients, but that is not enough. How do we convince prospects of the benefits or results that will come from our services? How do we market services?

—Lynn, Principal

Previous Dilemma

Beating the survey blues

I create questionnaires for my clients to learn about their customers' needs and worries. When customers complete the survey, they receive a discount. However, a disappointing three in 100 complete the survey. What can I do to entice more people to complete surveys and improve those numbers?

—Elisa, Marketing Manager

Summary of Advice Received

Bribe 'em. Entice 'em. Build it—but what if they don't come? Some surveys are a hit, but others are a miss. Here are the tips that readers provided to ensure that you receive more survey responses than you have fingers:

  1. Emphasize customer benefits.
  2. Pay attention to the format.
  3. Select the right incentive.
  4. Take a more personal approach.
  5. Share survey results and include a hook.

1. Emphasize Customer Benefits

There are two kinds of surveys: those focused on the people giving the survey, and those focused on the people responding to the survey.

Sigurd Grayston Skjorestad, consultant with Customer in Focus, experienced a 25% response rate on surveys when changing the method to "helping you give the customer a better service." When you develop a survey, answer the question of what's in it for the customer.

Tema Frank, president of Web Mystery Shoppers International Inc., says it depends on whether the people responding are clients or prospects:

If they are prospects, they've got little incentive to divulge such information when they haven't even decided if they want to buy your product/service. If they are, in fact, actual clients of yours already, it seems that you need to make a clearer connection for them about how THEY will benefit by providing you this information. They won't do it for the money—they've already budgeted to spend whatever they agreed to spend on your service. And they are busy people, so why should they take the time to fill it out if they don't see how it will help them?

So, make it clear to them how providing you with such information will enable you to do a better job for them; that will, in turn, help them increase profitability, retain customers, acquire new ones, etc. Think carefully about what you ask them. Are there any questions that you could eliminate? Only ask about things that will REALLY make a difference. Are there any questions that may be too sensitive? If so, do you really need that information? Can you get at it some other way?

Paul Miser, account manager with Communications Data Services, also supports the theme of showing how the survey is beneficial to the customer:

You need to let your customers know how their responses will help them. Tell them that the company uses the information to better help them, the customer. This will give them a sense of position in the organization and make them feel as if they matter. They need to know that their voices are really heard and are used by the organization. Showing the customers that their ideas and concerns are being used by the organization will help in customer retention, loyalty and the response rate. Remember, without the customer, there would be no business. So make them feel as important as they really are.

2. Pay Attention to the Format

Make it stand out. Make it as short as possible. Make it as relevant as possible. Roger L. Cauvin, principal consultant with Cauvin, Inc., addresses the length of a survey:

The most important single factor that determines whether a visitor will complete a survey is the length of the survey. If the visitor can plainly see that the survey is short, and will not take much time to complete, then he will be more likely to complete it. You must therefore make tough choices when formulating your questions and determining which ones will appear in the survey.

Barry Wegener, senior director of marketing and communications with Carlson Marketing Group, shows how to handle a long survey:

Don't ask questions if you can't or won't do anything with the data. Maybe you could break your survey into chunks and give just part of it to different groups of customers. I did a long survey once, and the first question was a separator that broke the group into segments with each segment answering a different set of questions. The worst survey we've done gets at least a 10 percent response; usually it's more in the 40 to 60 percent range.

Marlene Holm, senior project manager of Market Decisions, provides questions to consider when creating the survey:

Examine your questionnaire—is it easy to complete? Is it compelling? Are you telling the respondents what is in it for them? Another aspect to consider is: Are you guaranteeing the respondents' anonymity? Do the respondents understand this is a true survey and not just a disguised sales pitch? I would suggest that you also read Don Dillman's book, Mail and Internet Surveys: The Tailored Design Method. By using the methods outlined in this book, my company achieves response rates of 50 percent or higher.

Angi Fisher, COO of Contact 101, says there are many considerations when conducting a survey:

Considerations include: the number of questions in the survey; the time it takes to fill out the survey; the introductory letter introducing the survey; and who is conducting the survey. Simply put, customers are more likely to respond to a third-party survey than directly to your company survey. A third-party survey is viewed by customers as a safe vehicle to give their candid feedback. The number of questions in a survey plays a role as well. The longer the survey, the less likely your customers will respond due to the time they believe it will take to respond.

It is also important to be concise in your introduction letter and explain the reason you are conducting the survey. Lastly, consider using a third-party service that has experience in crafting successful surveys with proven survey results. There are affordable third-party survey services that can help you in the process. Companies like mine have been able to get 60 to 80 percent response rates based on the methodology used for conducting a number of surveys on behalf of their clients.

A reader recommends letting the customer know how many questions are left while she is in the middle of the survey. This keeps her from dropping out, because she doesn't know how much is left to do. Also, ensure the survey and a prize for answering it jump out of the page.

3. Select the Right Incentive

The prize offered can make all the difference. The appropriate item depends on your content. Guy Smith, principal with Silicon Strategies Marketing, shares his experience:

The bribe is everything. I achieved a 36 percent response rate on a customer satisfaction survey by offering music CDs as the bribe. Almost everyone listens to music, so the appeal is nearly universal. On the last page of the survey, customers selected the genre they preferred and to whom to send the CD (could be the respondent, or a friend). I then had an office worker raid the bargain bin at the local CD store, buying CDs for an average of $2.50 each. This incentive was cheap and effective.

More recently, I had a 24 percent response rate using a $15 gift certificate. A discount is a non-item. There is nothing of substance in a future savings of more money that must be spent—in fact, it is a negative cash flow from the customer perspective. CDs and the gift certificates are real-value items, and ones that people relate to immediately.

Rice Williams, marketing manager at Agilent Technologies, expands on the Amazon gift certificate idea and says, "Offer a $25 Amazon gift certificate to the first 'N' respondents, where $25 x N = your max survey budget."

Jenn Gleckman, consultant with Strategic Marketing Group, got a big response with this technique:

We send out a number of print surveys, and one tactic that has resulted in a 35 to 40 percent response rate is enclosing a $1 bill with a survey letter inviting the person taking the survey to enjoy a cup of coffee or soft drink while responding. Interestingly enough, many send back both a completed survey and the dollar bill.

Wow, they sent back the dollar bill…. Who knew? Luca Meyer, survey methodologist and data analyst, expands on how to offer incentives based on individual needs:

Offer multiple incentives and allow the respondent to choose one. Also try different invitations, not with the incentive alone, but also with the message that is sent to the potential participant.

Adam, owner of TigerTek, adds this closing advice about incentives:

What industry? How many clients do you have? In the case of a large customer base such as a bank, the customers don't care about doing surveys as they don't see any point due to solutions not being implemented, or they believe the bank is greedy. This can happen to any other business.

Build rapport with the customers, and the next time you see them for business, at the end of the interaction, place a piece of paper down on the desk they are sitting at and say, "Here, could you please fill this out? It will only take five minutes. I'll go get your appreciation gift now, if you're interested." Then place a pen on the paper or hand one to them. Then walk off.

The discount idea is cheap and low value. Use a related gift with higher perceived value similar to the cost savings with the discount you are offering. Give the customer an immediate physical reward, something to take home and show others, something different and exciting. Perhaps even a prize drawing to win a product or service that is around the same cost as your survey budget: say a $1,000 trip to a nice luxury hotel for two with spending money. Or team up with a related business or restaurant that may want to set up a partnership with you. They would offer your service/product as a reward to their customers completing their survey.

4. Take a More Personal Approach

In addition to providing an incentive, sometimes a personal approach is necessary to encourage greater participation. Tema Frank conducts surveys orally:

Unless you've got hundreds or thousands of customers on the go at once, try to get the information from them orally, with an in-person meeting if that is feasible, or a telephone meeting if they are not in your city. This helps build the rapport between you and your client, and takes them less time and effort than filling out a survey.

Yvonne Oung, marketing manager at MSC Trustgate, suggests having someone familiar explain both the survey and why it's a good idea to participate:

My principle is "call down." If this is an account with an account manager, ask her to call her customers to pre-empt them about the survey. Customers will respond better when someone they know asks them to do the survey. If there is no account manager associated to this account (assuming it is consumer product), you have few choices:

1. Resend your survey as a reminder.

2. Put the survey together with the product. Make sure you mention the incentive in the front of the package.

3. Have some good speaker talk on the subject related to the product that you are selling. Then, at the end of the session, request them to fill out the survey and give them a discount coupon.

4. Share survey results and include a hook

When customers know they are making an impact, are being taken seriously or are made to feel special, they are more apt to participate. In fact, they might like getting involved with the process, above and beyond just answering the questions.

One of our readers does an annual survey and includes a blind page link on his Web site; he provides the link to people he targets for survey completion. The initial contact by email has the link. Then, 10 days later, he communicates again and encourages the person to complete the survey, explaining that it will close in three days. This results in a whopping completion rate of 30% and greater.

Corey Clark, first vice-president of Lincoln Savings Bank, attempts to make the survey appear as an opportunity instead of a chore for the customer:

As we receive and analyze data, we make sure to implement at least one "low hanging fruit" immediately based on survey feedback. Then we communicate that heavily to our customer base along with our thanks for their input and suggestions. Customers now know this tool is taken seriously and tend to participate more regularly and in greater numbers.

Craig Mason, managing director of Novagenus, has had success in sharing survey results with the clients:

We have found that one of the keys to improving response rates to surveys is to share some of the information with the client in return. At the end of the day, people only complete surveys if they find it in their interest. Offering a discount is certainly one approach, but we have found a more effective technique is to satisfy people's curiosity by allowing participants a glimpse at the results.

You might ask, "Are people really interested in the results of my survey?" Well maybe not in the overall results, but we have found most people are interested in how other people think compared to themselves. We don't suggest you share all the results. It's a simple human truth; people are most interested in themselves and by offering a glimpse of how other people answered questions compared to their own answers can provide customers with a satisfactory reward.

Curiosity and an opportunity to gain some personal insight can help stimulate people to complete the survey. You might be surprised how effective this is.

Marcus Barber, a strategic foresight analyst, wraps it up neatly by looking at the survey process and explaining why it's important to include a hook for the potential respondent. That hook may be a feeling of shaping the product/service, contributing to the organization, having a unique voice in the process or simply being heard.

The challenge I see for most survey people is that the "mental model" they have of the process seems to limit what they think the survey process actually entails. Effectively that model works something like this:

1. We need people to answer some questions.

2. Not enough people are answering.

3. Let's give them a carrot to encourage more people.

Now on the surface, that is a reasonable model, but where it breaks down is what happens between steps one and two and what happens between steps two and three. Here's what to consider. Your survey program is actually a sales program. You are "selling" the idea of someone completing a survey. If you aren't getting enough people filling in a survey, then they aren't "buying" the reasons you are giving them for completing the survey. The breakdown between steps one and two can be fixed by changing your mental model of the survey program—it's a sales process and you need to sharpen what it is that you are selling and why some people buy and so many don't. That means the breakdown between steps two and three must then address the hook. You are giving them a concrete answer, appealing to the left side of the brain dealing with logic—"fill in this, get this as a result." But where are the right side emotional appeals?

The way to encourage more people to respond then is not just about the rewards you offer, it's about giving people a compelling reason. For MANY people, a compelling enough reason will be comments from other people that have filled in the survey. So Mrs. Jones from Va. Says, "I've been completing these surveys for about eight months and so far have gotten some great prizes, but the greatest benefit is learning about products and services..." or other such comments. If you want to boost participation, then the survey needs to be easy to work through, and the reasons you give to engage respondents need also to appeal to both emotional and logical reasons. The "testimonials" will help potential respondents see that completing the survey isn't a hassle and that the rewards (concrete or otherwise) are real.

Survey says: Keep the customers in mind, pay attention to formatting, ensure the incentive is appropriate and communicate.

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Hank Stroll ( is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.