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Surveying the customer landscape

If you don't know your customer, then you don't know your business.

Those are strong words but you really won't know how to respond if you see changes in your sales patterns in these volatile market conditions.

Decision makers need up-to-date information in order to introduce products and improve services that create value in the mind of the customer. However, what customers value this year may be quite different from what they value the next. As such, the attributes that create value cannot simply be deduced from common knowledge. Rather, data must be collected and analyzed.

Professional market researchers generally divide their work into qualitative studies (interviews and focus groups, with free-flowing and open-ended discussions) and quantitative studies (usually surveys). In a perfect world, you would probably do both, using qualitative research to create a survey, the results of which might in turn be interpreted using another focus group. Given limited resources, though, it generally makes sense to go quantitative. After all, some data is better than none.

Having recently created our own successful customer survey, wed like to share with you some insights and tips on the process:

Define Your Survey Target
First, identify the customers to survey. In general, it makes sense to focus on your best customers. Businesses whose customer purchases are small and buyers tend to remain anonymous may have to settle for a smaller sample from a broader range of customers. Ezines, newsletters and e-mail updates are also an opportunity to identify whom to contact later.

Decide on a Format
There are basically three ways to administer a survey: by mail, by phone, or online. A personalised letter can work when the survey population is hard to reach but would need to stand out from the clutter. A phone interview serves well for complex and probing questions that demand interaction between interviewer and subject, but it normally requires professional assistance and has a high cost attached to it. Most businesses, though, will do very well with an online survey.

Experts say that a survey should take from five to 15 minutes to complete. The best practice is to divide your questions between customer satisfaction and customer demographics and limit the number of questions to improve the response rate.

Its important to be personal, and begin by praising your customer and highlighting the importance of the survey. At the end of the survey, you should offer some sort of reward or incentive.

Its also a very good idea to test the survey on colleagues and friends outside the business for an honest appraisal before going live - a small spelling or grammatical error could show a customer a lack of care and attention.

Probe Customer Satisfaction
When writing survey questions, take care to avoid introducing a bias that telegraphs the answers you hope to receive and avoid trade jargon or abbreviations.

Ask open-ended questions and give respondents the opportunity to say what they like about your company and what might improve the relationship. Be sure that the text boxes allow space for lengthy responses. Follow these with a multipart rating question and a corresponding multipoint scale to review your business's specific processes.

And dont forget to ask for suggestions. The potential responses willI help you think of things you may have not considered before.