Choosing the Best Survey Method to Reach Your Customers: A Comparison of Mail, Phone, and Online Surveys

So, you need to make a strategic decision…

You’re smart, you know the first step is collecting data, and you decide to conduct a survey. Great – now you must tackle a simple yet often complex question:


Respondents are most often reached for survey via phone, mail, and email.

Below, we highlight the pros and cons of these 3 most commonly used survey methodologies.  



The Good:

The advantages of phone surveys are instantly apparent. If the intended survey recipient doesn’t answer the phone, you are able to properly identify and ask for the correct person. Should that person no longer live at the residence, you gain vital information allowing you to update and enhance your customer database. And if the intended recipient is available, the interviewer is able to qualify the respondent as authoritative.

THIS IS THE ONLY METHOD YOU CAN BE CERTAIN THE RESPONDENT IS THE PERSON YOU INTENDED TO SURVEY. Furthermore, if the respondent is disengaged or distracted, the interviewer can quickly discern this based on background noise, tone, and response time. 

Of all survey options, phone surveys require the least effort on the part of the respondent. There is nothing to read, click, or bubble; he or she is able to listen and respond freely. These free open-ended responses provide richer data with greater specifics. 

The greatest advantage is the interviewer’s ability to probe for more information. Instead of just accepting their response of “good service,” you can ask the respondent for greater detail. And should the respondent be dissatisfied, the interviewer is able to ascertain the problem and provide the customer’s information to a company representative.

The Bad:

Phone surveys are typically the most expensive and require the greatest effort and involvement by the administrating company.

Meeting response quotas can be challenging as home phones are becoming obsolete; landline users are typically older and younger generations rely almost exclusively on cell phones. This can subsequently lead to an overrepresentation of certain demographics and result in skewed data.

Getting more responses, and more diverse respondents, requires more calls, and thus more interviewers, who – according to PayScale – cost an average of $12.74 an hour. 

Respondents can only hear and not see the information, making long lists harder to rank and potentially tiring. Your customers’ time is valuable, so surveys should be kept under 10 minutes- which may require forfeiting multiple open-ended questions. 

While a phone survey demands less work from the respondent, it does require a set block of his or her time and attention. And because you’re being considerate of your customers, call times are restricted to a small window of appropriate hours.


The Good:

In the digital era, mail now holds certain significance. It is reserved for items of importance, and recipients are much more likely to notice and consider your survey when it is physically in their hands.

Having the survey in front of them allows clients to read and reread at their leisure. This is particularly HELPFUL FOR SURVEYS THAT INVOLVE NEW CONCEPTS OR LONG PASSAGES. 

Unlike with digital or mobile surveys, mail respondents aren’t restricted to a device; they can fill it out at their convenience. This allows you to send longer surveys since the recipient can stop and return to the survey on his or her own schedule

Mail surveys are boundless and considered more trustworthy than online surveys.
Respondents are free to write as much as they’d like, giving you (the market researcher) valuable information. They are also more likely to give honest answers that they’d feel uncomfortable saying to a phone interviewer. 

The personal touch of sending a letter – especially if there is a hand written note or signature –  can make customers feel valued and actually increase their overall satisfaction. 

The Bad:

The most obvious drawback to sending mail surveys is the unavoidable and ever-increasing cost of postage. However, this is still significantly less than the cost of running a call center. But unlike phone surveys, there is no way of controlling or verifying who fills out the survey. 

Mail surveys require the most effort from respondents. Not only do respondents have to physically fill out the survey, but they must also mail it back.

Because of the amount of effort required, those who complete mail surveys tend to be older and either extremely satisfied or extremely dissatisfied.

Mail survey image pros cons


Questionnaires that require the respondent to move through extensive skips are not suitable for mail surveys. And because responses are handwritten, they tend to be shorter and briefer. 


The Good:

They are the most accessible and affordable. A survey can be emailed to limitless recipients at the touch of a button.

They are fast to implement and by far the fastest to field

Field = the amount of time it takes to collect data

According to professors David Kember and Paul Ginna, online surveys have a shelf life of about 5-7 days. 80% of responses will be within 48 hours. And reminder emails can be sent to those who have not replied. Typically from these efforts, another bump of 15% can be seen.


Online surveys are efficient and user-friendly. They can provide helpful images, video, and audio – which is impossible via other methods – and automatically guide respondents through the questions.

By making your survey mobile-friendly, respondents can take it on the go and on the device of their choosing. 

Programs can monitor response behavior for authenticity.

You can identify and discredit “speeders” (people who completed the survey in an unfeasible timeframe). For instance, if the survey has 30 questions, and averages 10 minutes to complete, anyone who finishes in say, 2 minutes, is likely rushing through without answering thoughtfully. 

You can also insert “red herring” questions like “select ‘satisfied’ for question 7” to ensure that respondents are paying attention. 

The survey and can be programmed to require an answer or minimum character count in order to proceed. This helps prevent invalid answers or skipped questions.


The Bad:

As wonderful as it is to email a survey to a million people, you can run the risk of being blacklisted or marked as junk. You can avoid this by sending surveys in smaller batches over a period of time.



Survey scams have created widespread skepticism. These scams entice respondents with too-good-to-be-true rewards then transmit viruses or sell their emails to spam sites.

To make customers less leery, include as much personal or relevant information as possible. If the survey is tied to a recent visit, identify the date of the visit and the name of the customer service representative that the respondent saw to make the invitation more credible.

Complex programming, dealing with technology issues, and ensuring your survey accommodates all web browsers, and computers models requires highly trained (and paid) IT personnel.

While programming can monitor invalid or blank responses, respondents can get around these requirements by typing random characters.

Like with mail, there is no way to be sure that the intended respondent is actually the one taking the survey, and certain demographics are harder to reach. For example, the elderly may not have the means of filling out a survey online, or poverty regions may not have access to such devices. 



When selecting a survey methodology, key factors to consider are:


Telephone surveys typically run the highest cost and online surveys the lowest. Phone surveys compensate their expense by offering validity and security; they are the best way of ensuring your respondent is the intended recipient. 

Online surveys are the fastest to create and distribute, and results can be viewed in real time. But due to their ease, Internet surveys are omnipresent and response rates continue to decrease. 

Mail surveys can offer a sense of appreciation to your customers and are convenient to complete but require the most respondent effort. The response rate is generally lower and polarized; respondents are either extremely satisfied or extremely dissatisfied. 

All methodologies run the risk of respondent representation bias, so you need to consider which demographic you are trying to reach.

You can increase response rates 10-15% by incentivizing your survey. A worthwhile incentive can entice up to 50% of the people who would not normally complete the survey (regardless of method). 

Choosing the best survey method - mail, phone and online surveys infographic