Customer Surveying for Small Business: Why Bother?

Common wisdom is that only large companies need customer-research programs. After all, small companies have their feet on the ground and know what customers are thinking, right? On the surface, that seems a reasonable attitude for small-business managers to take. But ask yourself if there is some percentage of customers defecting to competitors each year for part or all of their purchases.

If so, then some formal customer-research program, especially surveying, can yield a quick payback by shedding light on the reasons for the defections.

Let’s expose some other myths of customer surveying.

Surveys don’t provide data that can be used. There can be some truth here. Survey results are primarily numbers. The challenge — assuming the numbers accurately reflect respondents’ views — is to give voice to the data. This voice comes from designing a questionnaire with an understanding of how the data will be used, and then performing proper data analysis.

Sometimes the voices are a scream for help. In fact, identifying those customers needing “service recovery” should be a key goal of a survey program. Such actions may stop a defection before it occurs. Most often, the voices are pointedly identifying shortcomings in a business process. An ongoing survey program can play this quality control function. Sometimes the voices from the data are more subtle, requiring correlation to demographic data to uncover the phenomena that are in play.

Surveys should be viewed as part of a broader program of understanding customer needs and concerns.  In fact, a survey may pose more questions than it answers, but these are questions that likely need to be raised — and you can’t find answers until you know the right questions to ask.  Follow-up and in-depth research should yield the specific improvements that are needed.

Customer survey programs are too expensive for small businesses. While it’s true that large companies can spend eight figures on research programs, a small business can perform a very adequate job on a reasonable budget. Of course, this would require that much of the work is done in-house, but the advent of electronic-survey tools makes surveying far more accessible. Good desktop tools are available for less than $1,000, and there are even free, hosted survey services.

You might still consider outsourcing in areas of the program that require specific expertise or operational capacity that simply is not available. Outsourcers will also help drive a project schedule. A pure in-house survey project may fall prey to higher-priority concerns and languish undone.

No one on staff has the skills to do a survey. Much of sound research practice is applied common sense, and someone with a market-research background should have exposure to the survey research discipline. In fact, it’s possible that your staff has skills it doesn’t know it has. If you’re skilled at interviewing, then you have experience in eliciting information in a structured way. Don’t sell your skills short, but do know your shortcomings.

Surveys are just a bunch of questions strung together. A quote from Mark Twain has merit here: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you, it’s the things you know that ain’t so.” Survey instrument design is a craft and arguably the most challenging part of a survey program. If you think you have that craft and you don’t, then you may create an instrument that provides misleading information.

Look at the following survey question: “How satisfied were you with how quickly your call for information was answered?”  Show this question to 10 colleagues and ask them what they think is being asked.  You may get 12 different answers.

This question, apparently benign, is loaded with ambiguity.  What’s being “answered,” the phone or the question?  Does “quickly” refer to the number of phone rings before someone or something answers, how soon you were in contact with a person who could answer the question, how quickly you got the answer? Fleshing out ambiguous terminology is a real challenge.  By the way, if you do present the question to your colleagues for review, you’ve developed the skills for pilot testing your survey instrument.

As mentioned, don’t sell your skills short — but know where they are short — and a survey program can yield a very fast return on investment by listening to a now more loyal customer base and applying the findings to improvement programs.

From the print edition of Boston Business Journal