Get Better Customer Input

Adapted from content excerpted from the American Express® OPEN Small Business Network

Surveys are an excellent way to find out how your customers feel about a new product, service, location, store policy or virtually anything that’s important to your business. A survey will tell you what your customers expect of you and your company, and clarify how well you are performing in their eyes.

If executed properly, you can achieve impressive results without spending a lot of money. Customer service experts estimate it can cost between $3,000 – $5,000 to sample a representative segment of your customers.

The tips below can help you create an effective survey:

Start with clear objectives

A strong survey has a clear goal or focus. (i.e. to find out how customers feel about a proposed new location or store layout; get response to a new product or service; learn why once loyal customers are now shopping elsewhere). Take time up front to know why you’re surveying your customers, and you will get results that will help you make your business more effective.

Give customers a compelling incentive for responding

Ron Zemke, author of “Coaching Knock Your Socks Off Service” (Amacom) suggests including discount coupons for certain products or services with the survey. Or, if customers return the survey in person by a certain date, they’re entitled to a 10 percent discount. This can be particularly useful if you’re using your survey to prospect for new customers. It might also be as simple as a sentence at the top of the survey indicating that you are using the input to evaluate current policies/products and create new ones — customers like to feel like they can have an impact on your company.

Ask questions that are important to customers

Customers aren’t concerned with issues that do not pertain to them (i.e. hiring, promotion or store policies, outreach programs, etc.). Make sure that each question is important to your customers’ needs, not your internal management. Plus, remember that a successful survey arouses excitement and is fun to fill out. Don’t put yourself in a position of wasting your customers’ time.

Keep the survey brief

Ideally, it should contain 10-12 questions neatly spaced on one page.

Use a confidential self-mailer to generate higher response rates

The easier it is for people to respond, the higher the response rate will be. Self-mailers are highly recommended because they require less paper and postage. Next best is including an addressed pre-stamped envelope. ( It’s presumptuous to expect respondents to use their own postage.) Also, stressing the survey’s confidentiality increases your chances of getting honest answers.

Ask compelling easy-to-answer questions

Keep questions direct, simple and brief. Scaled questions (strongly agree, moderately agree, disagree, don’t care) and yes/no questions are the easiest to answer. Long, wordy multi-part questions should be avoided. An example of a good question: How well do you feel your accountant meets your tax needs? The answer would be on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent).

Encourage customers to give their opinions

With every question, enclose a “Comments” line, encouraging respondents to express opinions — both positive and negative. Many service businesses, for example, have been successful with questions such as, “If this were your business, what would you do differently?” If respondents feel strongly about the issue, pro or con, there’s an excellent chance they’ll answer it.

Test survey before mailing it

Andy Mosko, managing principal of Organizational Research Forum, Inc., Vernon Hills, IL, a company that specializes in designing customer surveys, advises testing a survey before mailing it. “Try it out on a few good customers,” he says. “You’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover it can be improved.”

Focus your surveys on your best customers

These are the people whose opinions you value most. You don’t have to mail a lot of surveys to get valuable information. If you have 2,000 valuable customers, for example, consider sampling 500. A 50 percent return (250 respondents) is considered excellent; 30 percent (150 respondents) is considered good and 10 percent (50) is dismal. If the lion’s share of your business comes from only 8 or 10 customers (as may be the case with a small service business), design your survey with their needs in mind.

Preview survey with postcard arousing curiosity

A brief attention-commanding announcement should be delivered a week before the survey is officially sent. It’s an opportunity to highlight the benefits (premium, discount or special money-saving coupon) of filling out the survey and sending it back promptly.

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