Spring 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA1

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Surveying Client Satisfaction

By involving clientele and vounteers in program evaluation, they were able to speak from firsthand experience about the effectiveness of Extension information transfer in Florida. Volunteers and clients are unquestionably more credible in justifying this work than employees on the payroll. ...a client satisfaction survey is easily justified because we don't want the phone to stop ringing and the doors to remain closed. Extension must continue to serve clients seeking timely information during their most teachable moment.

Peter Warnock
Florida Cooperative Extension Service
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
University of Florida-Gainesville

"How am I doing?" Posing that question demonstrates the qualities of openness, courage, and a willingness to change. American businesses increasingly ask their customers similar questions, and the Extension Service should be doing the same. Entrepreneur Tom Leonard reminds us of an accepted marketing principle that says that it costs five times as much money to get a new customer into a store than it does to keep an old one happy.1 Perhaps that's why Leonard, and many other businesspeople, adhere uncompromisingly to a corporate policy of:

    Rule 1-The customer is always right.

    Rule 2-If the customer is ever wrong, reread rule 1.

Importance of Client Service

Balancing reactive and issues-based programs continues to challenge Extension faculty. Every agent knows, however, that providing information to a client looking you in the eye or questioning you on the phone is undoubtedly one of Extension's most important functions. It's a significant educational function because when adults seek information, they learn best. With the availability of electronic information transmission and a growing number of Master Gardeners, program assistants, and volunteers working in all aspects of Extension programs, answering client questions continues to consume large amounts of available staff time and energy. As one county agent wrote, "The agent who gives good service stands out because he/she helped the customer solve a problem and left him or her with positive feelings."2

In 1988, the Board of Regents of the state University of Florida required the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) to implement a statewide practice of surveying Extension effectiveness in providing information to the public.3 These accountability studies were requested by the chairperson of the state Senate Appropriations Committee, who questioned the efficacy of Extension information delivery to both rural and urban Florida clientele. Without this political threat to IFAS funding, the Florida Extension client satisfaction survey wouldn't have been designed and implemented.

Client Satisfaction Survey

The Florida client study was patterned after a program evaluation process entitled, "Reflective Appraisal of Programs (RAP): An Approach to Studying Clientele,"4 developed by Claude Bennett of ES-USDA. The client survey examines two levels of evidence from Bennett's Hierarchy of Evidence, clientele reactions and clientele practice changes.

Potential respondents to the survey are all clients seeking educational information from an Extension office over a 30-day period. The requested educational information could be related to the subject-matter areas of agriculture, home economics, 4-H youth development, community development, sea grant, and energy. Examples of educational information given by an agent, volunteer, or staff member include: soil test results, a 4-H fact sheet on horse judging, an organic vegetable gardening bulletin, advice on low cholesterol diets, plant cost data on raising azaleas in containers, or information on controlling cockroaches in the home. Questions related to meeting times and places, references to other public agencies, or information of a general nature aren't considered educational information.

When Floridians visit or call the Extension office for educational information during the 30-day study, they're asked to provide their name, address, and phone number, after they've received the requested information. They're also told they may be asked to participate in a clientele satisfaction study.

Once county agents decide to undertake a client survey, a team of six to eight county agents, staff, and key volunteers is assembled. The team discusses the rationale for the study, the study design, the telephone interview instrument, the time frame, reporting requirements, and sampling and data collection procedures as preparation for conducting the survey. Team members are also encouraged to role play a telephone interview. A minimum of 50 names is drawn randomly from the listing of people receiving educational information from the county office to guarantee 30 to 40 valid responses to the survey.

One county in each of Florida's five administrative districts undertook a client satisfaction survey in 1989 and 1990, with many more counties using the survey in 1991. For example, Martin County, with a population of about 100,000 residents, recorded 485 visitors or callers during a 30-day period. The eight-person team randomly selected 50 names from their list to call for interviews and then quantified the responses. A partial survey summary is shown in Table 1.5 In addition, the unsolicited comments, questions, and recommendations gained from respondents were valuable to the team and study.

Table 1. Survey summary.
Questions, Responses (N=36). No responses to questions occurred
when interviewers overlooked a question or the client withheld
1. Did the information meet your expectations?

2. Have you had an opportunity to put the information to use?


Did it resolve your problem?

3. Have you shared the information with anyone else?


Do you think you will?

4. How do you feel about the way your request was handled by
the Extension office?

Handled well-30
Handled OK-4
Could have done better-1
Handled poorly-1
5. How do you feel about this conversation?

Representative Clientele Comments:
  • Could not have been better; friendly and efficient.
  • You were a lot of help.
  • Received the information, but with little enthusiasm.
  • It is important to see how a business can improve.
  • I waited too long on the phone.
  • I have had many contacts here, all have been very good.

The Martin County client survey team's final report indicated clients generally appreciated Extension and the help they received. Additionally, clients suggested that better internal communications and a friendlier attitude on the part of some Extension staff could enhance information transfer and clientele satisfaction.

A User-Friendly Survey

After two years of use, the advantages of the client satisfaction survey have become apparent.

The survey is conceptually anchored to the RAP format and content, but sufficiently flexible to accommodate the survey team's preferences. In practice, some counties chose to make substantial modifications to the recommended questions and procedure. Nevertheless, the essential conceptual work has been done for the team, from beginning to end.

The survey provides a straightforward program evaluation procedure that's readily understood by Extension staff and volunteers, and relatively easy to use. Unlike many evaluation procedures, it doesn't require a long drawn out effort or lengthy report. County reports averaged about three pages.

Conducting the client survey can empower important stakeholders, such as secretaries, program assistants, and volunteers, who are often left out of program evaluation. Forest and Rossing argue for this empowerment by encouraging Extension to open lines of communication between all people and program levels in the evaluation process.6

Finally, because such surveys are unusual in the public sector, it impresses elected officials with Extension's business- like approach to measuring customer satisfaction.

Client Satisfaction Tells the Story

By involving clientele and volunteers in program evaluation, they were able to speak from firsthand experience about the effectiveness of Extension information transfer in Florida. Volunteers and clients are unquestionably more credible in justifying this work than employees on the payroll.

Local and state government officials were positively influenced with the evaluation data and the procedures used in collecting the information. Furthermore, the client survey demonstrated to legislators that we were willing to ask our customers, "How are we doing?" and then act on their suggestions for improvement.

Agents and other county Extension workers took greater pride in their work as a result of objective positive reinforcement from the clientele. In addition, they gained insights in nonthreatening ways on how to improve the flow of information from the university to the citizens as well as within their county.

Leonard believes it's not the critical customers who are your enemy-they're really your best friends because they give you a chance to improve.7 It's the customer who doesn't complain, who says, "Oh, the heck with it," that's most feared. Our state senator did Florida Cooperative Extension a favor by asking a tough question and then giving us a chance to respond. Reactive information-giving to clients takes about one-third of county staff time and energy. Consequently, a client satisfaction survey is easily justified because we don't want the phone to stop ringing and the doors to remain closed. Extension must continue to serve clients seeking timely information during their most teachable moment.


1. T. Leonard, "The Customer Is Always Right," The Journal of Creative Behavior, XXIV (No. 4, 1990), 231.

2. C. Williams, "Keeping and Increasing County Support for Extension by Marketing and Delivering Good Service" (Kissimmee, Florida: Osceola County Cooperative Extension Service, 1988).

3. "The Relationship Between Research and the Cooperative Extension Service" (A report to the Florida Legislature by the Board of Regents, February 1988, E7).

4. C. F. Bennett, "Reflective Appraisal of Programs (RAP): An Approach to Studying Clientele-Perceived Results of Cooperative Extension Programs (Ithaca, New York: Media Services at Cornell University, 1982).

5. R. Whitty, "Clientele Satisfaction Survey of Martin County" (Stuart, Florida: Martin County Cooperative Extension Service, 1989).

6. L. Forest and B. Rossing, "Human Values and Program Evaluation," Journal of Extension, XX (September/October 1982), 32-36.

7. Leonard, "The Customer Is Always Right," p. 229.