As sections of the country begin to slowly reopen, allowing most to return to work, the Coronavirus moves from the limelight to back burner. It is indisputable that COVID-19 has changed home, work, and community life. Simple things like meeting friends for dinner are no longer simple. While this is happening, job insecurity and job loss is increasing across the country . Society is changing. And for organizations seeking to work with communities most affected by COVID-19, we can no longer operate business as usual. We must study and monitor this change to better serve our customers, to stay attuned to people’s needs as needs change in a shifting environment. As a result, surveying customers and determining what their needs are is paramount in maintaining quality service during and following this pandemic. 

With that said, our surveying techniques and strategies must change with the times. We must change the way we go about each step of the survey process, from question conception to communicating the results. We need to look at how to conduct every aspect of the process to best serve our low to moderate-income neighbors.

In response to this need, Listen4Good — a shared insight initiative aimed at assisting nonprofits in building sustainable, high-quality, and client-focused feedback loops — released a report and hosted a webinar regarding surveying during the age of COVID-19. Accompanied by a similar report from 60 Decibels and population statistics provided by SocialSuite, we see clear guidelines for interacting with customers in a respectful and informative manner that is adapted to our new circumstances. From this set of resources, we at Groundswell found four major takeaways that we will use to guide our future subscriber interactions.

Do Not Assume What The Situation Is

The first of these major takeaways is to never make assumptions about the needs of our customers. This guidance is relevant regardless of COVID-19, but it is magnified now. Community solar subscribers, including subscribers from Low to Moderate-Income (LMI) households, may be facing job insecurity or job loss. Alternatively, these subscribers may be working an essential job, putting in long hours with minimal personal protective equipment shielding them from the virus. These factors may explain why 72% of respondents in a SocialSuite survey reported their spending habits had changed since the outbreak of the pandemic. In addition, 28% of the respondents from the same survey said they were no longer able to provide for their families. These, along with an endless list of shifting needs, demand that we forgo assumptions when attempting to anticipate the needs of the LMI subscribers we serve, or worse assume those needs are the same as they were in past months and years. 

Ask Open-Ended Questions

This further evidence highlighting the importance of not assuming the needs of our customers brings us to the next major takeaway. We need to employ open-ended questions in surveys to solicit unexpected responses. These questions can be presented as a final “other” option in a set of multiple-choice questions or as a fill in box. Either way, the goal is the same: Obtaining feedback from subscribers that we would otherwise be unable to foresee. This allows subscribers to tell us what is really affecting them, instead of forcing them into predetermined “solutions”  we believe they will address their concerns. Now, more than ever, subscribers' needs are in flux. By allowing them to answer open-ended questions, we can better learn about and then serve subscribers’ real needs.

Shorter is Better

The third takeaway from this research is that we need to keep surveys as short as possible as that one action tends to keep response rates high. These are best practices for any survey regardless of circumstances, but this guideline is especially relevant now in the age of COVID-19. Time is a precious commodity for everyone, especially LMI subscribers, some of whom work essential jobs. A thirty-minute phone survey regarding their satisfaction with our services or how we can best help them in this challenging time is most likely low on anyone’s list of priorities right now. As a result, Listen4Good and 60 Decibels recommend keeping phone surveys shorter than fifteen minutes and nonpersonal surveys (via email, online questionnaire, etc.) shorter than five minutes. 

However, shortening surveys to these target times can be difficult. While a large amount of information is needed, it is important to ensure that the most important questions are answered by as many subscribers as possible. Removing extraneous questions or simply asking the most pressing questions helps reach these targets. If the time it takes to complete the survey is kept low, response rates will remain high, allowing us to get a more complete picture of LMI subscriber needs.

Inform Respondents of What Action is Being Taken 

Our final take away from this collection of resources is to close the loop. Closing the loop means telling the customer what feedback was received and how your organization will respond to the feedback is essential. This step can be as simple as a mass email to those who responded to the survey or a post on the organization’s website. Alternatively, a campaign can be conducted informing all who come into contact with the organization what was learned and how they are responding to it, through the use of social media, email, website posts, and even letters. Either way, informing survey participants that their response was heard and is leading to change makes them feel valued and appreciated. This strengthens the bond between the organization and the subscriber.

Collecting this data is important to ensure that we are able to offer vital resources to the subscribers we serve every day. Through the use of open-ended questions, shorter surveys, and closing the loop, we have the best opportunity to hear what our customers really need to make it through this pandemic.