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Survey best practice: Surveying employees versus customers

By Adam Zuckerman | May 10, 2021

Discover the difference in survey or listening techniques for employees versus customers.
Employee Experience

It is not uncommon for those who study the employee experience to borrow techniques from customer research. While there is value in this approach, it has its limits – treating research techniques across the two domains as interchangeable is far from advisable. Employees and customers are different in fundamental ways that must be incorporated into our surveys and broader listening approaches. Failing to do so risks undermining the very goals we seek in understanding and improving the employee experience.

Here are five ways in which survey or listening techniques are different for employees and customers:

  1. 01

    Hierarchies and report distribution.

    In most companies, employees are grouped into hierarchies that guide how survey results are reported, compared and shared with leaders. The accurate creation and maintenance of these hierarchies requires advanced technology and experience. Customers, however, don't exist in hierarchies, and unique reports aren't typically distributed widely, so none of these issues apply.

  2. 02

    Confidentiality expectations.

    In most instances, employees must believe their responses are confidential before they will respond to a survey (or respond truthfully), given the power dynamics of organizational life. This has direct implications on how you handle and report data, as well as on how you communicate about this data. For customers, though, there may be expectations for confidentiality, but if so, the concern is typically far less significant.

  3. 03

    Sharing survey findings.

    A critical part of any employee survey or listening program involves sharing high-level findings with employees. These findings keep them informed about the company and invested in the process of organizational improvement. Since customers have a far more transactional, short-term relationship with businesses, it is not typically necessary to share such results.

  4. 04

    Expectations for change.

    In addition to learning about survey findings, employees also expect to see actions taken as a result of their input. Companies that fail to act on surveys quickly can erode employee trust and hinder future efforts. So strong is the expectation for action that merely asking a question can communicate (even if inadvertently) a willingness to make a change. This is a unique consideration for employee survey content that does not exist in customer surveys.

  5. 05

    Interpreting survey data.

    Customers and employees also have very different expectations for data interpretation. When customers need a product or service, expectations can be enormous as a result of the many options available. In contrast, even highly engaged employees recognize that some aspects of any job are less than ideal. It's called work, after all, and expectations are likely more modest. This difference impacts how we interpret survey data. An example is the Net Promoter score, where an "8" (of 10) is labelled "passive." This makes sense for customers (where the technique originated) but seems a stretch when applied to employees.

These are just a handful of ways in which customer and employee research are fundamentally different – there are many more. This does not imply that linking customer and employee data is unwise, in fact it can generate tremendous insight. Rather the implication is that each type of data must be collected and analyzed in a way that is appropriate for the respective population. While borrowing techniques from customer research to study employees is no doubt useful, it must always be filtered through the lens of deep expertise in the employee experience.


Product Leader

Adam is the dynamic force behind Engage, WTW’s game-changing employee engagement platform. His goal is to create the world's greatest software for understanding and improving the whole employee experience, at work and in life, driving action, change and impact on organizations’ EX, company culture, and business performance. In his own life outside of work, Adam enjoys off-roading in his Jeep and spending time with his family. Follow Adam on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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