Advice for students undertaking questionnaires for their dissertations

As final year construction and surveying students begin research for their dissertations, building professionals are inundated with unsolicited email requests to complete surveys or questionnaires. Like many other surveyors, architects and other construction professionals, I am happy to give up a couple of moments to assist the next generation.

However, more often than not, the standard of the introductory emails and the surveys or questionnaires is terrible. More than 70% of those I receive have basic errors. And that makes me immediately want to ignore them.

I want to help students be successful in their research, so here is my 12point guide for good practice in requesting a response to a survey.

  1. Have you set aside enough time to write your survey and email?

Emails and surveys take time to prepare properly – at least 3 or 4 sober hours. You must invest this time. It is obvious when you don’t. If you cannot invest this time in your future, don’t ask for my time.

  1. Have you researched email marketing?

Remember: you are emailing me and asking me to do something. That is called marketing. Before you press send, please make sure you Google some advice about email marketing, then take that advice and action it.

  1. Does your email and survey look professional?

When you email me and all the others on your list, remember that this could be the first contact you make with a potential employer. Within a year of sending this survey, maybe within as little as six months, you will be looking for a job. We remember these emails and surveys. You are selling yourself just as much as you are asking for a survey response. Your email and your survey should be treated as carefully as you would treat your CV. I once employed someone who phoned me to ask for dissertation assistance.

  1. How many people are you contacting?

I know you are not just emailing me. There could be any other number of construction professionals you are contacting. Please email people individually. Whatever you do, don’t use ’cc’ on the email. I do not want to see a list of the other people you emailed, or for them to see me. Not least is it lazy and unprofessional, but GDPR may apply to you too. I suggest you use a proper email marketing provider like Mailchimp, which is free for very small accounts. You will look professional, it’ll be a personal email and you’ll also be able do some basic analytics of whether people have opened your email or clicked on your links.

  1. Is your subject line suitable?

Please consider your subject line. This is crucial. It’s the first thing to grab attention. Here are some real examples I have received:

  • Questionaire Request: Schoolboy error here – a spelling mistake. The very first contact and there’s a mistake in the first word of the first contact. The subject line itself is pretty poor too. Think about it. Why would I want to open this one amongst 100 other emails I received today. Why are you asking me to complete a questionnaire? It could have been ‘Help with research into why * … (*insert your thesis or dissertation here). You never know – it might raise my interest significantly.

Or

  • NTU STUDENT SURVEY – PLEASE READ: Don’t shout at me! Please do not use capital letters and don’t tell me what to do. I also do not know (and don’t care) what NTU is or are, and I don’t want to survey students.

Or

  • Standrad Forms of Construction Contract, CIOB Complex Projects Contract – Research Questionaire: This is too long, and there are two spelling errors. Haven’t you got a spell checker? However, it did interest me enough to open it.
  1. Have you proofed your email?

Work on the content of the email. Like the subject line, make sure there are no typos or spelling errors. Do the fonts match throughout too? Make sure it looks neat and tidy. Importantly, it should be concise and to the point. Don’t tell me the survey will take 10 minutes. I haven’t got 10 minutes, but I might be able to do a ’short survey’.

  1. Have you considered the time of day to send your emails?

There’s plenty of online research, but essentially the better times of day are lunchtime, Friday afternoon and late afternoon. If you email someone at the wrong time, you might be ignored.

  1. Is the link to your survey correct?

Yes, I have received emails requesting me to complete a survey then the link has failed. You’ve wasted my time and yours, and no, you can’t email me later with the right link because you have ’identified an error‘. You had my attention and blew it. This is not uncommon. Probably 25% of requests I have received contain this mistake. 

  1. Does your survey reflect the efforts you put in?

Make sure there are no spelling errors or typos. Please don’t send me a Word document to complete and return. I haven’t got time to fiddle about. There’s plenty of online survey providers like SurveyMonkey that will make your survey look professional and will also help you with the gathering of results too.

  1. Have you tested your survey?

Test your survey, then test it again. Make sure your survey works; make sure it’s logical. Get some friends (at least five) to hard test your survey. Get some test responses and check that the data you get is what you want. If they tell you the questionnaire is illogical, then change it. Listen to the feedback. Make sure all logic questions (‘if this, then that’) work and that there are no infinite loops.

  1. Is your questionnaire relevant to Chartered Surveyors?

A recent survey I received had an extensive list of construction professionals in the first question and asked me to tick my profession. I’m a Chartered Surveyor and that one had been ‘forgotten’!

  1. Have you said thank you?

Finally, don’t be afraid to follow up. Make sure that you thank me, and others, for the time taken to complete your survey. It’s important! You might also want to share the results with your respondents.