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Seven tips for highly effective surveys

Jun 1, 2003 12:00 AM


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Many readers of this column have shipped a product that he or she believed to be excellent, only to have the customer find fault with it. Conversely, there are cases when a flawed product was shipped, and the customer loved it. In either case, customer perceptions prevail.

Business planning not based on recent customer feedback has been compared to learning to swim in a pool without water — it's not realistic. The topic of customer feedback can fill volumes. This month's column explores the most common pitfalls I see in the drafting and conduct of mail surveys. In many cases, these shortcomings are so severe that the graphic-arts company would have been better off if it hadn't conducted a survey at all. Here are suggestions to prevent the most common — and dangerous — survey mistakes:

  1. Don't just ask about company performance. In a commoditized environment, customers will assign high ratings to most or all suppliers. Satisfactory product and service are expected. The question at hand involves competitive differentiation: How is a company perceived as performing compared to the customer's alternatives?

    For example, a company can be distinguished by a product or service that isn't offered by its competitors, even though execution is less than perfect. An important objective of a survey is to learn what the customer's buying decision was based on.

  2. If this is the printer's first survey in several years, or the first survey of its type, it is important to determine if customers have perceived a recent change in overall performance. Without this information, it is difficult to interpret if the feedback is based on recent perceived changes. Here again, customer perceptions may not necessarily reflect reality. It is common to find buyers who are unaware of or unimpressed by a supplier's investments or who perceive significant changes when few, if any, have occurred.

    Several years ago, we conducted a mail survey for a large printer. The feedback on the printer's services went well beyond disappointment. There were accusations of unethical business practices, and the comments ranked among the nastiest survey responses we had ever seen. But when asked if they saw any recent changes in performance, most respondents reported seeing improvement. Without asking this, the printer would have been inclined to make drastic changes. Instead, nature took its course, and the company is now doing very well.

    remember the Soft issues
  3. In formulating questions, don't underestimate the importance of so-called “soft issues,” such as integrity, courtesy, value, sincerity and communication. A healthy buyer-seller relationship transcends a good product delivered at a competitive price.

  4. It is next to impossible to interpret purely statistical feedback. Allow space for comments. If, for instance, a modest rating is assigned to billing, and no other information is forthcoming, one can't determine whether the problem is speed, accuracy, detail or the sum of invoicing.

  5. Don't confine the survey by distributing it to large customers only. Customers of all sizes have valuable (and valid) opinions and experiences to offer. It's possible that one client's insights are applicable to the entire customer base.

  6. Avoid “off-the-shelf” surveys. A survey's objective is to define or sharpen differentiated strategy, not to simply emulate the practices or experiences of other companies. There are wide differences in customer portfolios and in the needs of those accounts. One size doesn't necessarily fit all in market research.

    ongoing investment
  7. Finally, recognize that it's impossible to cram everything you've ever wanted to know about buying patterns, competition and perceptions of your company into a four-page mail survey or a telephone interview.

    Constant customer feedback is an ongoing investment. It can make or break other investments, such as equipment and staff. The information can, and should, determine the relevance and value of your company's business planning. Don't leave home without it.