What's the value of surveys to companies? Just ask.

Two Steps Forward

What's the value of surveys to companies? Just ask.

Q: Responding to the mushrooming number of surveys sent to companies by their customers and stakeholders is:

a) a distraction from the daily business of sustainability professionals

b) the price of doing business in the age of transparency

c) a valuable catalyst for creating change inside companies

d) all of the above

A. I’m going to go with D.

It’s become an article of faith that to be a sustainability professional in a large company is to spend a good part of your day filling out surveys. In 2010, when GreenBiz conducted — well, a survey of companies to gauge how many surveys they fill out, we found that some respond to more than 300 a year — more than one per business day. That was nearly two years ago. There’s a decent chance that number has increased. The rise of these external queries even has given birth to a term among sustainability professionals: "survey fatigue."

Nearly everyone wants to know something: customers, socially responsible investors, activist groups, Wall Street analysts, ratings groups, media organizations, government agencies, and others. They want to know company policies, commitments, and performance on a wide range of issues, from environmental compliance to human rights practices of suppliers. They want anything form high-level overviews to excruciatingly detailed drill-downs on a product-by-product or plant-by-plant basis. Some companies have full-time employees who do nothing but respond to such queries.

Is this trip really necessary? It appears that it is. Sustainability professionals say they find value in responding to surveys, especially those from customers. It helps them understand evolving customer needs, market shifts, and gaps in their own companies. It provides the basis for evaluating current programs. It helps them, to be blunt, justify their existence.

This was driven home recently at a meeting of the GreenBiz Executive Network, GreenBiz Group’s peer-to-peer learning forum for sustainability executives from large companies. At the meeting, members discussed the surveys they use for their suppliers — and the ones they receive from customers and others.

During that conversation, Barry Dambach, Senior Director, Global EHS & Sustainability at Alcatel-Lucent, the Paris-based telecommunications equipment company, revealed that in 2011 his company responded to 174 such queries, compared to 149 the previous year and 95 in 2007. Dambach noted that these numbers represent only the surveys “that we help support or people tell us about” — not, for example, when a sales rep provides environmental data directly to a customer. Dambach estimated that responding to these consumed about 20 percent of the time of his 10-person department, the equivalent of two full-time jobs.

I caught up with Dambach afterwards and asked him to shed more light into the process of responding to surveys. He was joined in the conversation by Shashi Kini, who manages the survey process at Alcatel-Lucent. It became clear that one key to success is streamlining the process of responding to surveys so that it doesn’t become overwhelming.

Dambach and Kini explained that the surveys they receive vary widely in scope and complexity. Some cover traditional environmental, health and safety (EHS) issues, while others look at a broad spectrum of sustainability and corporate social responsibility issues. Sometimes customer requirements appear as clauses in their contracts, other times through lengthy questionnaires.

There’s a clear trend in the nature of questions. “They used to be simple and straightforward,” says Kini, who coordinates the company’s responses to both internal and external requests for information on EHS issues. “For example, ‘What’s your company’s sustainability approach?’ Did we have management systems, did we have a policy, our compliance status? Those are straightforward questions. Now, they get into more complex questions, where they ask you more detailed questions about a particular product, for example. The number of questions range from five questions to about 60 or 70 questions. So it can get pretty complex in the level of detail that’s being requested.”

It’s not just customers, of course. There are also organizations like the Carbon Disclosure Project and the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes, both of whose questionnaires are extensive, and whose questionnaires can change from year to year. There are NGOs asking about anything from forestry to flame retardants. There are investor research organizations like Trucost, whose data sets, in turn, contribute to such things as the Newsweek Green Rankings.

It would be one thing if all of these entities were asking roughly the same set of questions — or asking questions in identical ways. But that’s far from the case. Small changes in phrasing can require vast differences in responses from one survey to the next. That adds a layer of time-consuming complexity to the job of responding.

At Alcatel-Lucent, Dambach and Kini have attempted to standardize and centralize information as much as possible in order to avoid having to reinvent information for each new response. They created a website that serves as the repository of public information, such as FAQs. Previously, answers to such questions were kept in a file folder, says Kini. “Now we can show how we do things and give more details on the website. We have a lot of boilerplate responses that we can direct people to.”

Streamlining survey responses has also required streamlining internal processes. Kini and Dambach have worked hard to establish themselves as the go-to resources for those in Alcatel-Lucent’s sales, investor relations, marketing, and other departments, making sure EHS and sustainability queries are routed through them to ensure quality control and consistency of responses. “From an internal networking standpoint, we’re very consistent now with where information funnels to,” says Kini. “The word’s gotten out, and more people know me personally, so not only do we get the requests coming in through the bid mailbox, which I monitor, I also get them personally.”

Another challenge is keeping up with the growing sophistication of the survey creators. “If I look back six or seven years, they would send us a questionnaire, we would answer it, and we’d never hear anything,” says Dambach. “Then, they would send a questionnaire, we would answer questions, and they might come back and ask additional questions. Then, it evolved to ‘Please provide copies of your documentation’ to prove it. Now, some of our customers are actually coming out and doing an audit.”

I asked Dambach and Kini if all this was a burden for them and their company. Kini quickly responded: “No, absolutely not.” She explained that customer queries often surface questions the company hadn’t thought about or new requirements that, once implemented, allow the company to be more competitive. “We look at this as a healthy, critical view of the outside looking into what we do from an EHS standpoint.”

Dambach concurred. “This is all part of the input into where do we need to be going, what is expected of us as a responsible company. These are all data points that go into us helping set strategy — things that customers are asking us and challenging us on, so that’s critical input. When I go back to my team or with senior leaders and we propose, ‘Hey, this is a new area that’s important’ or ‘This is a risk’” – well, it gets the attention of the folks upstairs.

Still, the process has its frustrations. “You don’t always get feedback on whether you hit the mark or not,” says Dambach. “So, lots of these [survey responses] go into black holes. Many of the customers won’t give you a critique on how you did. So we try to get feedback through our salespeople. Was our program looked at as leading edge and positive? Did it help win the bid? Or if we didn’t win the bid, was it because they felt there were deficiencies in our program? You don’t always get that feedback.”

Meanwhile, the march of the surveys continues unabated. And so does the evolution of what customers want. Dambach expects that customers will eventually start asking for video clips as part of survey responses. “We laugh, but that’s coming, because we can do it,” he says. “And actually, from an Alcatel-Lucent standpoint, the irony is that our products make all that stuff possible.” 

Image of Question marks on the blackboard by HARELUYA via Shutterstock