Small business owners have traditionally put these questions to their customers face to face. But that kind of feedback just is not good enough, says Rich Nadler. "You can be in touch with your customers one-on-one and you can get personal feedback, but that is only going to represent those customers that you actually talk with," he said.
As president of Perseus Development, Nadler is one of several software developers who in recent years have made customer-survey software affordable to small businesses. Once the sole domain of big corporations, these sophisticated client-satisfaction measurement tools now are available at a price point that brings them within reach of the small-business owner.
Today's surveys can be delivered via e-mail or offered on a Web page, making it relatively quick and easy for customers to register their opinions. In addition to reaching a broad customer base, these electronic questionnaires have an advantage over the old face-to-face chat, in that respondents enjoy a degree of anonymity that may allow them to feel freer in their responses.
As the leader in the field, Perseus offers basic survey tools for between $500 and $1000, with its more sophisticated packages running to $5000 and above for larger corporations.
Pay money, ask questions, get answers: That's all there is to it ... right? Not exactly. Professional researchers say that while technology may have made surveying tools available to small businesses, a degree of caution is needed.
In the first place, not all survey software is created equal. "There has been a lot of crashing and corruption of the data, and a lot of difficulty in learning to use the software," noted David Zatz, senior consultant and director of the research area at Toolpack Consulting. "So the main thing is to find something that actually works on your computer."
Most products come with a free downloadable trial version, and Zatz urges business owners to test drive any survey application before buying.
Further, the format of questionnaires can vary, too. While some surveys ask the respondent to visit a separate web site, Zatz's preferred model poses questions in a simple plain-text e-mail message. "People can just put an 'x' between the brackets and be done," he said. "This really is the best way to go, especially if you have a short and simple survey."
Even then, formatting is only half the battle. In order to run a successful survey, one still must ask the right questions.
"It is not just about the software. It's about the issue of professional competence in designing a research survey and being able to analyze the results," said Ira Kerns, principle consultant and senior vice president of research firm GuideStar Communications. Customer research "is a profession, with its own methodologies and scientific standards, and someone in a small business often will not have that background."
In order to craft meaningful questions, Kerns suggested, a business owner might first want to talk with a few clients one-on-one. "Have a discussion with the people you are going to survey like a mini focus group, or at least in individual discussions where you try to seek out their primary issues and concerns. That will help you to make the questions relevant," he said.
Professional help is available, too. Consulting services can craft surveys, and software vendors typically will offer varying degrees of assistance along with their products. Perseus for instance can provide several hundred survey templates and a few thousand sample questions. Perseus clients also can pay about $100 for a survey review, in which a professional researcher will look over a proposed survey and suggest changes as needed.
Even if you ask the right questions, though, that still is not enough.
Experts point out that a survey is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. In order to justify the effort and expense, it's important to put survey data to use. Client input ought to drive changes in marketing tactics, customer service, product lines or a range of other areas.
The whole point of a survey, said Nadler, is not just to gather data, but "to make sure that you are meeting you customers' needs."
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