10 Tips for small business: surveying your customers

One of the most important things a business can do is to invest the time to understand its customers. This can be accomplished in several ways: by collecting and analyzing business data, by observing customer behavior, or by studying comparable companies. Or, you could always just take the simple approach and ask them. This simple, straightforward method can be done in a few different ways: by speaking to your customers one-on-one as they visit you or you visit them; by convening a small focus group of your customers and hiring an experienced moderator; or by creating an online survey and asking your customers to participate.

All three approaches can give you excellent results at varying cost and reliability, although the first is not particularly scientific.

I’ve put together some tips and tools that will be useful to you as you plan the process of surveying your own customers and clients. Good luck!

1. Define a goal.
The most important thing you can do when planning a survey is to decide what exactly you want to know. Is this about customer satisfaction? Behavior? Demographics (or “firmographics”)? Take the time to determine what you wish to understand and plan your survey accordingly – your goals should, in large part, drive the design and execution of your survey.

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2. Recruit the right participants.
If you are fortunate enough to have a large user base, take the time to segment properly. For instance, if the goal of the survey is to understand your customer’s attitudes towards medicare you might want to only survey those over 55 years of age. Alternately if you want to know more about your customers tastes in indy rock, you may want to target the under 30 set.

3. Incentivize properly.
You say you want participation? Toms of responses? Piles of data to analyze? Well then you’ll need to offer something of value in return. Professional market researchers will tell you that you will receive a significantly higher response rate if you offer a prizes (or compensation of some sort) for participation; even a token award or modest raffle will increase response rates meaningfully.

4. Craft your questions well.
Remember that the quality of the responses you receive is in large part a measure of the quality of the questions you ask. First thing first: keep em short and easy to understand; participants will have little patience with long or confusing questions. Next, start with the easy questions, then move on to the more complex – this will serve to draw the respondent into your survey and lead to higher completion rates. Use a variety of question types: multiple choice checkboxes, likert scale, yes/no; by mixing these up you will hold the participants interest and lead to greater engagement and more accurate responses. Finally take care that your questions are not leading or biased; remember you want their answers, not just the ones you’d like them to give.

5. Keep it short, make it fun.
A good survey should take less than 10 minutes for the respondent to complete. Five is even better. For the best results, make sure that your survey is focused, goal oriented (see #1 above), and above all, BRIEF!

6. Use good tools.
Wufoo. That’s all I have to say on the topic. I know there are other tools out there, and I am sure that some could make an argument for SurveyMonkey or Zoomerang, but I like Wufoo. Take a look around and find the service that offers the tools, features, and UI that you like best.

7. Before, during, and after.
Here’s a few pointers for you to remember before you launch, while the survey is open, and after it has been completed. Before the survey: 1) test the survey: make sure that you and some colleagues take the survey several times to look for glitches, inconsistencies, and errors. 2) Send out a “Heads-up” email: studies show that response rates are greatly improved when a potential participant knows a survey is on the way.
During the survey: 1) Be sure to set up auto-responders to say remind them to come back and finish up if they only complete part of your survey and to send a nice “thank you” message when they finish up. 2) Send a reminder out to anybody on the list who has yet to complete the survey; do this only once – please do not be obnoxious with multiple reminders – just a gentle prod in case they forgot.
After the survey: Say thanks. And mean it. If you offered a prize for participating be sure to send it in a timely fashion and be sure to let everyone know who won. Even if a respondent doesn’t  win, they’ll still appreciate that you were good to your word.

8. Track activity.
Most online survey tools can be set to alert you when a new survey is completed and many will track email opens and click-through data. Sometimes something as simple as a great subject line can increase participation and result in more responses.

9. Organize your data.
Plan ahead and make sure that you set up your questions with your data analysis in mind. For instance using a yes/no question may be fine for some questions, while a 10-point likert scale may provide more valuable data for others. Be sure to carefully think through how you will analyze the answers to different questions and design them accordingly. As you start to gather the responses put them in a form that is easily readable and sortable, and give careful thought to how you intend to visualize the results. Charts, graphs, and tables can be set up long before all of the responses have been harvested.

10. Dig in deep.
The real fun starts when your survey closes. Be sure to choose a service that allows you to report directly on their site as well as download into a spreadsheet for more detailed analysis. As in #9, be sure to plan for this from the start and think hard about how you will use the data and what information you will be trying to extract.

Photo: Khairil Zhafri

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