A well-designed survey is fast, simple to create, powerful, valid, flexible, inexpensive and can provide you with a distinct competitive advantage in your marketplace. A carefully worded survey that’s focused and knows exactly what it’s attempting to learn for management is welcomed by the audience you are soliciting. They are easy to compile and analyze and provide a great return on investment. So, why are surveys overlooked and underused? My belief is that most owners and managers are not yet aware of the revolution that has taken place in the world of surveys.
The Internet has quite literally transformed survey taking at the cellular level — nothing is like it used to be. The Internet itself and its all-time killer application, e-mail, has changed the playing field. With that came a new species of business support: online firms that offer comprehensive survey assistance (from design to data collection and reporting). One of these, InsightExpress, also performs market research, and studies reveal Internet surveys now cost just 20 percent of what mail surveys used to cost.
ONLINE SURVEY TOOLS
There are many outsourcing companies who can carry the ball for you when you’re ready to run the survey play. Almost any decent online survey application will allow you to easily define your survey questions and format the possible responses your audience can supply. Some companies offer a more sophisticated functionality, but all the basic services will give you the ability to make the survey look and feel like your own with company logo, colors and header graphics which tie in with your company’s brand. Some lower-cost online sites include SurveyMonkey, Zoomerang and Constant Contact. You can always go old-school and design your own survey, type it up and mail it out with a cover letter and a stamped self-addressed return envelope. There is some nostalgic charm to that hands-on method and it still works.
WHY DO SURVEYS ROCK?
Some answers just can’t be gotten from Google (believe me, I’ve tried). Certain questions can only be directed at the source — but there’s a problem with just knocking on doors, clipboard in hand, or making 500 phone calls; it’s inefficient and most people generally clam up when asked difficult face-to-face questions. Surveys are great because they can handle large populations very quickly and offer a level of confidentiality that comforts the respondent (increasing the response rate and improving the accuracy of their answers). Additionally, surveys will not break your budget. In fact, the adoption and acceptance of e-mail as an everyday communication method, surveying (along with newsletters) has become downright cheap from a transactional standpoint.
While the speed of the survey transaction is beyond fast (especially compared to just 20 years ago) and costs have dropped to amazing pennies per piece, the true value and beauty of surveys is found in the forms of information they produce. A simple survey question can provide an objective informational response. If you ask customers for the average selling price of the kitchens they build and the answer back is checked “Between $45,000 to $50,000,” you’ve just gotten real-time objective information that can be analyzed and measured anyway you’d like. However, if you ask, “Are you treated with courtesy and concern when there’s a service problem?” you are now asking for a measurement of perception on that customer’s part and, regardless of their response, they are telling you their truth.
Surveys have the power to reveal and assess perception, and if the 21st century has taught us anything, it’s that perception is reality . . . making perception very powerful indeed. If 38 percent of your customers believe your lead time is two weeks and your actual internal reports show your lead time as 4.5 days, then your lead time might as well be two weeks. A brief information campaign can correct that disconnect, but you can’t just fold your arms and say 62 percent have it right and 38 percent are total knuckleheads.
USING SURVEYS: A NO-BRAINER
Surveys can look both backward and forward — mastering in “What if . . . ?” scenarios! They can be designed to investigate how your business performed for customers last year, and/or they can ask how your customers would respond to a new strategic initiative your sales manager supports.
Surveys can be used internally and externally. You can measure customer perception or assess key elements of your own individual business.
Surveys are inexpensive, quick to perform and easy to administer by your company.
Surveys are now easier to effectively design with the wealth of information available on the Internet if you choose the DIY method.
When designed with carefully composed questions surveys can achieve strong response rates and results that are highly accurate.
WHAT DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?
What do your customers think of your delivery service? How are your installation teams really doing out in the field? Do you have a potentially expensive new builder pricing program or a display offering under consideration? Surveys don’t just assist marketing decision; they can be very persuasive when used nontraditionally. Can you imagine meeting with your bank’s loan officer to enlist support for the purchase of a dust-collection system and lower emission trucks while having in-house survey results showing how potential customers in your area would strongly prefer a “green” source of supply? How many small business owners do you think show that kind of progressive forethought when seeking a loan? The answer is very few.
WHAT TO DO WITH THE RESULTS?
Since your customers and/or employees have supported you by giving their precious time over to you in answering the survey, it is critical you honor them and the objectives of the survey. What to do with the results? Here’s one answer. It’s a stretch for sure, but when it comes to your integrity, you must shoot for the moon:
Keep up the communication by thanking everyone for participating and advising them to be on the lookout for some positive changes inspired by their contribution.
Analyze the survey results from every angle. If necessary, resurvey the hot topics that require more study, and then use the survey insight to develop your plan for change (including a budget and a timeline).
When plans are finalized (beneficial across the board) and supported internally, break the outline into three to five doable phases. Announce the changes you foresee along with a timeline.
Lastly, thank your survey audience once more for their efforts and loyalty. Show genuine respect for the customer by carrying out the timely implementation of any promised enhancements the survey revealed as necessary.
Surveys that are well-written and possess a warm and professional cover letter explaining what you’re attempting to learn and for what purpose should create feelings of camaraderie and goodwill. Do it right and you will make the bonds stronger between you and your outreach group. Do it right and do it on a regular basis and you will actually be enhancing your brand. Nearly all companies perform surveys for a very positive reason — most are trying to gain valuable insight so they can improve their market offerings.
Very few use them as a smoke screen or method to stall complaining customers. However, surveys are similar to a meadow filled with sweet wildflowers; it just wouldn’t be modern life if this meadow didn’t have some patches of poison ivy or a few devastating land mines. You will risk a complete collapse of the goodwill you’ve created through surveying if you drop your end of the bargain on their toes! By asking your customers and employees to give you their time in accurately filling out a survey — even a brief electronic survey delivered via e-mail — you are incurring a psychological and emotional debt with people, and that matters a great deal. Even if you do NOTHING with the information, you will be viewed as “slightly better than most” by your audience simply because you cared enough to ask when so many do not.
A FEW LAST THOUGHTS
Researchers argue over the need to entice and/or reward the survey recipient with the promise of a trinket or gift for the time spent completing the survey. What do you think? How do you personally react to a survey request when it contains a crisp dollar bill or a coupon of some sort? You can’t stuff cash or coupons into an e-mail — at the very least, we will all have to get creative with our thank yous.
Timely and accurate feedback from the markets (or employees) you serve is vital for survival, allowing for more proactive management options, whereas a feedback-free environment forces management to stay in that high-stress reactionary survival mode. Developing a survey plan will help you thrive. Remember, surveys measure not just what people think but what people WILL think. Surveys can tell you the hard but helpful truth. It takes bravery to perform a survey, even more bravery to read the answers (and embrace them rather than deny them), and the utmost bravery to be 1,000 percent honest and nondefensive about them and actually use the responses to re-create an organization based on the feedback. Survey says . . . be brave!
About the author: Chris Traynor, Surface Fabrication magazine’s senior business columnist, is director and knowledge scout of Whip-Smart Management Consulting LLC, (www.whip-smart.com), as well as a board-certified senior professional in human resources (SPHR). Traynor has 25 years of experience in the solid surface industry as a consultant to fabricators, distributors, manufacturers and associated firms. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.