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Do-It-Yourself Customer Research

By Mark Wardell @MarkWardell |

How to find out what your customers think of your business, and keep them coming back for years to come.

Gathering the all-important, often business-changing information you want from your target market can be a challenging and costly venture. The big companies like Coke and Ford spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to find out how to make their products more successful in the marketplace. However, for the average SME, a simple questionnaire remains one of the most accessible ways to learn what customers want.

Whether you're polling customers online, asking a few questions at the check-out or using a paper survey, your customers' opinions should inform the way you run your business.

When it comes down to it, listening to your customers isn't really an option. We're in an era where customer dissatisfaction has the potential to spread rapidly (think Yelp) with damaging consequences. Now more than ever before, it's important to set your business up so that you're paying attention to what people want before anyone gets to the point of being dissatisfied.

If you're ready to embark on the DIY customer research route, here are some key factors you'll want to consider as you shape your next survey - and your business!

Ask yourself, what is the most convenient way for your customers to provide their opinions?

Are they more likely to answer one or two questions at the till or would they actually go online to do a quick survey- perhaps for a prize incentive? Are you in an industry where people would be willing to fill out a paper questionnaire in person? Are your customers on Twitter or FB? If so, you'll definitely want to investigate the many great polling tools out there designed for the social media space.

What is it that you want to learn? What information will be most useful to your business?

For example, do you need input on a specific product you've just released or is customer service your primary area of concern? Focusing on one area of concern will bring you more specific customer feedback.

What types of questions will best serve you?

 There are several types of questions you can pose. Depending on the mode of delivery (face-to-face, online, etc.) and the type of information you'd like to gather, each of these has its advantages.

  1. Open Questions invite your respondents to share whatever details they see fit. (i.e. Tell us about the worst experience either you or someone you know had with our company? What could we have done to keep it from happening?)
  2. Closed Questions encourage your respondents to give specific, often one-word answers. (i.e. Will you tell your friends about our store? or What is the name of your favorite restaurant?)
  3. Multiple Choice Questions give your respondents a choice of several predetermined responses. (i.e. income under $30K, over $30K, over $45K, over $60K, over $85K, declined)
  4. Scale Questions ask your respondents to rate some aspect of your business on a predetermined scale. (i.e. rate your dessert for tastiness on a scale of 1 through 10 where 1 is awful, 5 is average, and 10 is the best I've ever tasted)

Consider incentives for opinions

The world of market research is changing rapidly. Companies like Survey Monkey and Twitpoll continue to develop new ways to poll customers. A new company called Tiipz has just launched a successful market research platform built entirely on rewards for opinions. The word on the street is that rewards are the most effective incentives for gathering information and engaging customers. Keep in mind, investing in a reward incentive is a much more cost-effective route than paying for traditional market research.

Whatever you do, keep it simple and precise

You'll want to ask easy questions in the most straightforward way possible. People aren't likely to answer a questionnaire that seems overly complex. For example, a question like, "How often did you go out to eat last year", raises questions in your customer's mind such as…

  • "Does that include a quick bite at a mall food court?"
  • "Does that include all meals or just dinner?"
  • "Does that include catered meals at parties?"
  • "Does that include take-out food?"

As a consequence, your results may be less than accurate.

Pre-Test your questionnaire

Give your survey to a small sample of people before putting it out to your customer base. This will give you a chance to gage reactions and make changes before rolling it out to the rest of your customers.

Be sure to word "sensitive" questions carefully

Questions about income, age, or family can be sensitive topics for some people and should be treated with respect. It's better to make a question optional and receive "don't know" or "refused" answer than to receive a "false" answer.

Assure confidentiality

You can often gain people's confidence by guaranteeing confidentiality. Let people know that their names and addresses will not be used for any purpose other than serving them better.

Be aware of human nature

The rule of thumb is that, all things being equal…

  1. You'll get a yes answer more often than you'll get a no.
  2. People often portray themselves as they'd like to be, rather than as they are.
  3. People will often give you the answers they think you'd like to here.
  4. People tend to overplay the positive and underplay the negative. For example, if you ask people how many times they have driven while impaired, the answers will likely be under reported, but if you ask them how regularly they exercise, the answers will likely be over reported.

So, of course, when you analyze your results, leave a little room for margin of error.

When it comes to surveying your customers, putting in time and a little strategy up front will be well worth the effort in the long run. Once you find a way to engage customers to express their opinions about your business, you'll know how to keep them coming back for years to come! Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

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