Gathering Feedback from Your Farm’s Customers

Advice on developing helpful end of year surveys

  • Stout Oak Farm in Brentwood

For direct-to-consumer farms, September is often a harbinger of a slower season. With summer CSAs ending and markets shifting to winter hours, this period of transition is a huge opportunity for farms to gather feedback from customers on their experience this year. But the value of the feedback received is only as good as the questions asked— “garbage in, garbage out,” as they say.  

I’ve been a member of many CSAs and shopped at hundreds of farm stands and farmers markets over the years. Yet, I can count on one hand how many surveys I have been asked to complete about my customer experience. 

There’s an art and science to customer surveying and you can spend many hours learning design techniques and best practices for crafting unbiased questions. For those who want a bit of information to get started, here are a few ideas to think about when developing customer surveys. 

Why do an end of season survey? 

At the end of summer, the last thing you want is to add one more thing to your to do list. But a thoughtful survey can provide your business with game-changing feedback for sales retention, and the data you gather will make next year’s marketing even easier!  

Methods 

Customers are dropping feedback into all kinds of interactions throughout the year. This feedback sounds like: 

“Last week’s tomatoes were amazing—I made panzanella with them. What kind were they?” 

“Ugh, another kohlrabi?” 

“Where do we park for this event?” 

Overhearing mutters at CSA pickup, answering questions at market or noting reactions to Instagram stories are all ways of collecting customer responses. But this off-the-cuff feedback is hard to catalogue when it comes in piece by piece over the summer season. If you can, make a space on your phone’s notes app, in a shared Google document or in a physical notebook for you and your team to write down feedback throughout the season. Writing it down will help collect the information for next year so that you send a panzanella recipe with CSA week 7, plant less kohlrabi, and make sure to add parking information to the online ticketing platform. 

Beyond the in-season snippets, customer feedback can also be solicited through in-person interviews or online surveys. If you’re just starting out, in-person interviews can be a really great way to host a focus group consisting of your target market. Because they are already in the habit of coming to you, asking for folks to come back to the CSA pick-up location one week after closing for an hour-long, group interview will likely provide you with valuable information as a new grower. Incentivizing participation will likely be key — perhaps an extra week of CSA for those people who attend! 

Online surveys can be less time consuming and work best for farms who want to survey many customers. A quick internet search will garner many free survey platforms — just make sure to do a test run with a friend or two to work out the kinks before you send them to the masses.  

Preparing for launch 

Survey fatigue is real. If any one of us opened our email right now, I bet we could find several unanswered requests for feedback. It’s important to start the process knowing that while you won’t get everyone to respond, you will certainly receive more information than if you never asked for it at all.  

Those who respond right away and in detail will likely do so because they know they have something to say. While many will reach out to say that your flowers brightened their mood all summer, know that some criticism will likely be coming. No one wants to hear how their product disappointed someone, but the feedback can be an opportunity to shed light on areas for improvement next year. Those flowers wilted too soon at home? Now you know you might have to adjust your systems to improve vase life. If nothing else, asking gives the customer an opportunity to share their feedback with you directly instead of only talking to their neighbors about what they didn’t like.  

The most thought will need to go into how to get the in-between folks to respond — those that may answer but just need a little push. Personally, while I can easily ignore an email from that big box store asking about the wedding gift purchase I made last week, I’m far more likely to spend my time giving online feedback to my CSA farmer. Leverage that personal relationship when making your survey pitch. Let them know their feedback is important to you and that you’ll be asking for their opinions in the coming weeks. Remind them verbally at the last farmers market or drop a QR code that links to an online survey into their last CSA share. 

What to ask 

We know attention spans are short and everyone’s time is valuable, so shorter surveys are better in most cases. Try to keep it to less than 15 questions with a mix of open ended and single choice answer types. When you have a first draft, ask a friend to time themselves answering it; 6-12 minutes seems like a sweet spot for most. If it takes longer, you’ll lose folks. Shorter, and you’re likely not asking the right questions to get actionable information. 

With only 15 potential questions, each question needs to earn its keep. To figure out what’s worth asking, start by writing down what you hope the answers will tell you. Here are some examples for a CSA survey for inspiration: 

  • You want to know if the customer’s expectations were met. 

If you’ve been uneasy about the quantity or quality of your products over the season, ask about it! But don’t rely on a yes or no answer as they don’t often lead to actionable results. Instead of “Did you like the quality and quantity of produce in the CSA?” try “What did you like most and least about the produce in your share this year?” with an open-ended question box for customers to fill in. You’ll get specific responses about what was good or not so good instead of 27 yeses or nos. 

  • You’ve been thinking about collaborating with another farm for a CSA add-on next year and want to know how many of your existing customers would be interested.  

The question could be, “Which of the following would you be interested in adding to your weekly CSA next year?” Multiple choice answer: Eggs, Bread, Meat, Flowers, None, Not Sure, Other (fill in the blank). This style of answer lets you sneak in multiple questions into one and adding an “other”, fill-in-the-blank category might give you an idea you hadn’t thought of yet. 

  • You want to know how to bring more CSA customers in.  

Because your current customers make up this target market, ask what drives them to be customers. Avoid wasting questions asking about things you already know (name, email, location, etc). Use open ended questions such as, “Why did you choose to be a CSA member this year?” or “Why would you recommend this CSA to a friend?” Because the question is answered in their own voice, you’ll have concrete examples of the way your target market speaks and what they value. These answers can be used as testimonials, and you can pick up on their phrasing for future marketing. 

  • You changed the pick-up day/location and want to know if it worked better for members. 

Because the first-time CSA members weren’t CSA members last year, they have nothing to offer about the comparison of the two days/locations. To avoid asking the first timers unnecessary questions, you may want to separate your customer list in two and send separate surveys to each group. You can easily segment lists in many email marketing platforms. This can be worth the effort because you can now replace that question with another that is specific to new members such as, “How did you hear about our CSA?” or “What would’ve made the onboarding process easier for you this spring?” 

Importantly, it only makes sense to ask this question if you’d potentially change the day/location back based on the feedback you received. If you get 95% feedback that the old day worked better, would you change it back? If not, why ask? 

When to ask 

It’s best to ask customers to reflect on their experiences soon after the experience is over. Try to get an online survey open by the last CSA pick-up or market day. Ask for participation in person at your last interaction and then send out a link to the online survey via email. Think of when the clerk at the post office circles that survey at the bottom of your receipt — you probably would never have noticed the survey otherwise!  

There’s some data out there that shows industry standards on what days are best to send a survey—some say Thursdays, some say Mondays. I say, pick a day that your customers are expecting to hear from you. Did you regularly send a newsletter or CSA pick-up reminder? Pick the same day. If you have data from your own email list on open rates, use that info to pick the best day.  

Some people will need to be asked more than once. It’s okay to send out a reminder email but don’t remind the folks who have already completed the survey, or you risk people hitting the dreaded unsubscribe button. It’s easy enough on most email marketing platforms to only resend to those folks who haven’t opened the email yet. Or you can manually take out those emails that you already have a response from. You can ask again a few days before the closing date, perhaps with an email subject of “Last chance to share your feedback.”  

Bringing it home 

After your survey closes, hopefully you’ve collected some feedback that helps answer the questions you set out to explore. Send a thank you note to those who gave feedback. Perhaps they will get a thank you discount code to use at your farm stand this winter or early bird access to CSA sign-ups next year. If you used that as an incentive for folks to fill out the survey, be sure to follow through on that promise. 

Take some time to sit with the responses. It’s unlikely that action needs to be taken right away. If a big mistake you didn’t know about catches your attention, of course it makes sense to address it with that customer directly. But generally, it’s best to avoid the pull to explain your side of any complaint. If you feel like you won’t be able to avoid that desire to engage, think about making the survey results anonymous so a rebuttal will be impossible. 

After some time, make a list of the results that point out the best things you’ve done as well as the opportunities for improvement. Share with your staff or farmer friends to celebrate your wins and brainstorm on challenges — perhaps one of them already has a creative solution.   

You can also pull out any patterns that seem to emerge. Did half of the respondents talk about how the CSA made them feel healthier? Make a note to use healthy and nutritious adjectives in your social media posts. Were most of the people who answered your market survey families who loved to see their toddlers engaging with the market environment? Make a note that stroller access is important between market stalls and plan to place flyers up at the local preschools next year. Perhaps a bubble machine will pull in more families with kids to the farm stand after market season is over? The creative possibilities are endless, but the information you’ve gathered gives you a good starting point. 

Key takeaways: This is the time of year to ask your customers for feedback. Keep online surveys brief but impactful by asking open-ended questions that allow customers to answer your questions in their own voice. Ask questions about the customers themselves as well as their experiences. Be open and ready for any responses that come — it’s all good information to use in planning for next year. 

Author(s)

Extension Field Specialist, Agricultural Business Management
Office: UNH Cooperative Extension Food and Agriculture, Taylor Hall, Durham, NH 03824