Up Close And Personal

Survey your customers to get intimate knowledge of their wants and needs

How intimately do you know your customers? What turns them on? What causes them to tune out? A customer survey is a simple way to acquire information about their wants and needs.
“With mature products–those that have been around awhile-and when there is a significant amount of competition, you get a lot of mileage out of doing customer surveys,” says Sheila Kessler, president of Competitive Edge in Fountain Valley, California, a consulting firm that helps small, mid-size and Fortune 500 companies devise marketing campaigns, surveys and focus groups.

People want more service and better products, yet companies continue to disappoint their customers, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which measures the attitudes of purchasers of products or services in 34 different industries. “If you’re not measuring customer satisfaction, then you’re not managing it,” says Kessler, author of Measuring and Managing Customer Satisfaction: Going for the Gold (Quality Press, $29).
Three survey methods you can use to help measure customer satisfaction are:

  • Direct mail. A two-page questionnaire can be sent directly to a home or business. Costs include printing the survey, envelopes, postage and incentives used to get customers to respond (e.g., product discounts or drawings).
  • Telephone. The main costs are phone charges and time spent by reps making the calls.
  • Personal interviews. You can ask open-ended questions face-to-face or with in-store questionnaires. The biggest cost is the interviewer’s fee.

Big corporations may spend more than $100,000 on customer surveys, but you can get by for less than $1,000. Experts suggest using an independent firm to develop the questions and analyze the responses for the first time out, unless someone in-house has experience in quantitative analysis.

Before you conduct a formal survey, regularly solicit feedback from your front-line employees. Sales reps are the voice of the customer and should keep written records of complaints or product requests. They should also note “wow” experiences, where the customer was delighted with a particular item or service. “At regular sales and staff meetings, you should be asking, What are customers telling us?” says Kessler.

As important as it is, surveying front-line employees is a reactive method; surveying customers is a proactive tool. Of course, the size of your company and customer base will determine the size of your survey. A common practice is to survey 1,000 people. Also, be sure to ask the right people–a target group of past customers from your database of names as well as potential customers (e.g., people who call or walk into your place of business for information).

A few survey pointers:

  • Respect your customers’ time. Don’t ask questions to answers that you can get from other sources such as your customer database (e.g., the last time they purchased from you).
  • Ask neutral questions that won’t influence the respondents’ answers (e.g., “How was your meal?” not “What was good about your meal?”).
  • Don’t ask double questions such as “Was our service fast and friendly?” You don’t know if the answer applies to one or both qualities. .
  • Ask at least one open-ended question, e.g., “What do you like about our product?”
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