Market research can help you understand the latest trends in your market and what your customers are looking for—and customer surveys can be a powerful market research tool. The ultimate reason for doing customer surveys is to get feedback on your business that allows you to improve—and to deal with any problems proactively.

Unfortunately, a lot of smaller businesses think they don’t have the resources to do a customer survey properly.

Simard offers the following tips for business owners who want to get started with customer surveys or for those who want to improve what they are already doing.

1. Set clear objectives

To conduct a successful customer survey, you have to know from the get-go what kind of information you want to collect. How do you decide? Start by talking to your employees, especially anyone who works directly with customers. They’ll have good insights into the kinds of people you serve, what they need or expect, and if they’ve noted any “early warning signs” of dissatisfaction that you should know about.

For example, if sales are declining in a certain area of your business, you’ll want your survey to help you find out why that is. You can build you survey to find out if something has changed for your customers that makes your product or service less relevant—maybe it’s a feature they no longer need, or a new competitor with a better offer.

Simard recommends having a set of core questions you ask every time you survey, with other questions that can be changed annually or semi-annually depending on specific things you want to find out.

2. Ask about overall satisfaction, then get to the details

Most customer surveys start by asking about overall satisfaction and then drill down to get to the details.

“You want to get a spontaneous response off the top,” says Simard. “Do they like you or don’t they? If you start with a lot of detailed questions, people lose that spontaneity. And if you leave questions about overall satisfaction to the end, when people just want to be done with the survey, you probably won’t get the rating you deserve.” Simard says spontaneous responses are highly valuable because they tell you what people are really thinking about your company.

3. Keep it short and simple

Write your survey using clear, simple words people will understand. People multitask when completing online or telephone customer surveys and are easily distracted, so you want to make it easy for them to follow along and answer accurately.

For that same reason, it’s critical to keep your survey short—it should take no longer than seven minutes to complete. Anything beyond seven minutes and you’ll see a lot of people quitting the survey before they finish.

4. Use open-ended questions sparingly

An open-ended question is any question that requires the respondent to fill in a box with free form text. An example might be, “What do you most want from your shopping experience?” Research shows that people tend to write everything they have to say in response to the first open-ended question in a survey. This means that if you ask a lot of open-ended questions, you could end up with a lot of blank fields or repetitive answers.

“Open-ended questions often give you the nuggets, the actionable things you want to work on immediately,” says Simard. “You may only need one or two to get that gold from customers.”

Simard also cautions against including a question just because you are doing a survey. If the question isn’t strategic and the information you gather won’t be used then you shouldn’t include it.

5. Survey regularly, but try different customers each time

Surveys can be done on a regular basis, even once a week, but it is important not to survey any one customer more than once or twice a year. Otherwise, they get tired and possibly annoyed.

“Research shows that if you survey the same customer too often, you often start to get higher quit rates, as well as clients who ask to be removed from your survey list, and these are lost forever,” Simard says.

Beyond your customer base

Customer surveys are just one type of market research that specifically targets your existing clientele. Broader market research is normally done when moving into a new market or launching a new product. In those cases, you are surveying a sample of people from your target market, and only some of them may have done business with you before. This broader type of customer survey can be expensive and often requires expert help to objectively study what you need to know

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