I am an advisor to lots of start-ups. Lately I seem to be spending my time fielding enthusiastic questions from them about the kind of survey questions they would like to ask their customers.

Here’s a typical recent email I received on this topic (names are changed to protect the innocent) from a marketing employee at one of these companies. My reply, with handy client survey tips, follows.

Good Morning Susan,

I wanted to reach out to you because I was wondering if you think sending out a survey to our current clientele, would be useful in terms of having a deeper understanding of not only their habits but also their lifestyle and values. I’ve attached a link to a survey that I started.

Please let me know if you think this could be useful for us right now. Thanks! Sally

My real-life email reply (minus the bold!):

Hi Sally – I think you should conduct research when you have a concrete objective/problem to solve and when the answers to the questions can lead to immediately actionable insights. Your existing users are a precious resource and you should only “impose” on them to answer a survey maybe once a year, max.

Based on this, I don’t think you should do the research you’re proposing at this time.

Technical Digression: Also, you need 30 responses to have something that’s statistically significant (and, therefore, extrapolate-able). Typical survey goals are 300 responses (completes) and, at a bare minimum 100 responses. This enables the responses to be more deeply segmented while still remaining statistically significant in the segmented clusters. Typical response rates are ~5%, more if your user is very actively engaged with your brand. That means that you’ll need at least 2000 people in your database to be assured of getting the minimum 100 responses. I don’t think you’re there yet!!

What you should do is continue your rough qualitative research which is directional only and not statistically significant. But it’s a great way to get a general sense for your user, which many of the questions in your survey seem to be driving at anyway.

Best, Susan

5 key client survey tips for entrepreneurs from the email:
1. Conduct survey research when you have a concrete objective or problem to solve
2. The answer to every survey question should be something that is immediately actionable
3. The people in your database are a precious resource. Don’t burn them out on “nice-to-know” surveys.
4. Unless you have 2000 people in your database, you’re unlikely to get statistically useful, segment-able, extrapolate-able data
5. Ongoing, informal qualitative research with your target can be very useful in the early stages of a company’s life. Especially if you keep an ongoing record of the information you gather.