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Customers inundated with satisfaction surveys

In the end, it was not so much that he tried five times to have a mirrored console table delivered, uncracked, that bothered Jeff Ferreira, a North Shore designer. Rather, it was the routine that followed. He’d call the online retailer to complain, and almost instantly, three customer satisfaction surveys would land in his inbox.

That’s 15 surveys in a two-month span for a $600 table he never bought.

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“I didn’t fill them out,” Ferreira said. “I already spent enough of my time screaming at them over the phone.”

In 2014, even as consumers enjoy some success in their fight to eliminate annoying telemarketing calls, another form of business outreach — the customer satisfaction survey — is gaining on us. Airlines, yoga gurus, religious institutions, sports teams, car rental agencies, hotels, periodontists, doggie salons have all appropriated late New York Mayor Ed Koch’s signature question: “How’m I doin’?”

The country’s best known online survey platform, SurveyMonkey , is now processing survey responses at the rate of 2.2 million per day, up from 1 million a day in January 2013. Since its founding in 1999, SurveyMonkey users have sent 43 million surveys, and the questionnaires are likely to come at an even greater clip. Earlier this year, the Palo Alto-based company introduced a mobile app, meaning clients don’t have to be at their desks to create and zap off a survey.

It’s a similar story at another prominent online survey platform, the Utah-based Qualtrics, where the number of people sending surveys has grown 60 percent in just a few months -- from about 1 million in February 2014 to 1.6 million today.

The growth is a direct result of the technology that makes it less expensive and easier to send surveys than in pre-Internet days, when data analysis took longer, and paper and postal expenses were a factor.

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Statistics on the usefulness for businesses who employ the millions of online surveys are hard to come by. But Dani Wanderer, head of marketing at Qualtrics, says that real-time feeback is not only highly valuable, but in the age of social media, it’s better for companies to hear gripes before they’re escalated to Yelp or TripAdvisor.

“In the old days, companies would do surveys once or twice a year, and by the time all the information was gathered [and analyzed] it was out of date,” she said. “Now they collect it in moment -- when you land, when you finish at a restaurant, when you drop off a rental car. They know how every employee is doing down to the person, and they can roll it all the way back up to see how the organization is doing with customers overall.”

She points to a 2013 case involving Qualtrics customer JetBlue and early morning flyers leaving from Philly, a group that was, for some unknown reason, less happy than passengers leaving at the same time, but from other airports.

JetBlue’s follow-up investigation revealed the problem: The flights left from gates far removed from airport shops, leaving passengers with no water, juice or coffee, Wanderer said. So JetBlue began handing out beverages at the gate, and the satisfaction scores rose.

As consumers may -- or may not -- realize, surveys serve a purpose beyond collecting feedback about a particular product or service, said Robert Siciliano, a Boston-based identify theft expert with McAfee, the digital security company.

“The survey is designed for two separate reasons,” he said. “One reason is for the company to check in on how they did. At the same time, they are asking questions that might give better insight into their clientele, and they can use that information to mine additional customers in that same demographic, and pitch you more products and services based on how you answered.

“There are no real security implications,” he added, “but consumers can pretty much guarantee that whatever they say can and will be used to sell to them.”

Some surveys seem to give a company answers it should already have. Consider Steve Silberberg of Hull, his cable company, and an expiring $90 “Triple Play” introductory deal that was poised to rise to $150. A smart consumer, he called a rival company, scored another $90 deal, and took that back to his cable provider. “But they weren’t willing to deal,” he said.

So he switched firms. “Then my [original company] sends me a survey asking why I left, and offering me to pay $10 to fill it out,” Silberberg recalled, triumphant. “I said, ‘Sure, what the hell.’”

Silberberg knows how it feels to be on the other side of the survey. As president of Fitpacking , a weight loss backpacking adventure company, he sends a self-written questionnaire to everyone who takes one of his trips.

“I was told by an old girlfriend that my questions aren’t good,” he said. One in particular —“Where could Fitpacking improve?”— was too open-ended.

“People were complaining that there was too much horse manure on the trails and too many flies,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about that.”

Writing a good survey question is harder than it looks. Questions need to be concise, specific and neutrally phrased. The task can be so challenging, in fact, that it’s triggered a problem typically associated with novelists, not vice presidents of marketing: writer’s block.

Several years ago, at the start of the survey boom, the condition was so prevalent, said Jon Cohen, SurveyMonkey’s vice president of survey research, that it lead the company to conduct perhaps the most meta of all surveys: a survey asking why people who’d opened survey accounts weren’t sending out surveys.

Meanwhile, satisfaction surveys have become so present in modern life that they’ve started causing guilt (from customers who don’t reward a helpful employee by taking a follow-up survey), and, on the other end of the spectrum, hostility. Some customers resent being asked to do a company’s market research for free, or for a token reward.

Gina Barreca, a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut, says retailers are acting like students who expect to be praised for merely showing up to class.

“The surveys always ask if you’d ‘recommend’ their service,” she said. “Let’s turn it down a notch where we can expect people to complete their tasks without expecting a trophy.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.

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