To Succeed Prioritize Customer Service Part III: Using Customer Surveys

In the first two articles of this four part series I discussed the importance of excellent customer service to your business. This installment reviews using Customer Surveys to generate intelligence from your customers that you ...

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In the first two articles of this four part series I discussed the importance of excellent customer service to your business. This installment reviews using Customer Surveys to generate intelligence from your customers that you can use to improve your service delivery and standout from the competition.

Customer Surveys

Customer surveys are a tool for gathering information from your customers or prospects. You may want their evaluation of your performance or their experience of your customer service. You may want their opinion on proposed new products. You can inquire about their needs for additional products or services. Customer surveys vary from business to business. Certain types of activities are possible if you have a retail business and have access to groups of customers and prospects in one location. Different types of activities are required if you operate a professional services business and interact with clients one at a time.

Surveys can be administered in various ways. You can administer them via e-mail or mail, post them on your Web site or conduct them by telephone. No matter which method you choose, keep the questions simple and specific. To ensure you get the right details, ask a variety of multiple-choice, open-ended and ratings questions.

Properly conduct client surveys can uncover new business opportunities and areas where you may be wasting money or resources. This information can help you find quantifiable data -- such as the number of sales and Web site hits, dollars earned in each transaction, and total clients served -- to make operational decisions.

Types of Surveys

Successful surveys ask the right questions of the right people at the right time and can be summarized into meaningful (actionable) information. This is a challenging but achievable task. Standard survey types include:

1. Questionnaires

- requiring selection of response from among different types of questions:
* True/False
* Agree/Disagree/Don't Know
* Degree of Satisfaction
* Suggestions
Questionnaires can be handed to customers or mailed. Response rates for questionnaires, especially those mailed, is notoriously low. Remember that because volume is an important consideration in determining how many questionnaires to produce and use. Another strategy for delivering questionnaires is to use the Internet. If your business has a web site use it - it is the ideal vehicle to deliver a questionnaire.

2. Interviews

- asking specific questions of clients or prospects. Interviews can be conducted in person or over the phone. A popular form of interview is called 'intercept' because you 'intercept' the customer while they walk in the mall or at the airport. Typically an interviewer with a clipboard approaches customers and tries to get them to agree to be interviewed. Interviews are obviously voluntary and take time therefore people must to agree to them. This is a fact that must be factored into the interpretation of results. People who agree to be interviewed may not be representative of your customers. The trick is to interview as many people as possible who are representative of your target market.

3. Focus Groups

- these are groups brought together by a facilitator to give feedback. The feedback can be about current or proposed products or services, or their experience with your business. Focus Groups are the most complex and costly way of surveying your customers but they can also yield very detailed and thought out responses. Care must be exercised in selecting both a representative sample group and a skilled facilitator.

Surveying customers can be tricky business. You must be clear about what information you are looking for and ensure that the technique and audience selected will yield meaningful results. There must be a plan in place for what to do with the results. You must also be prepared to be surprised. Your customers may tell you things you neither expected nor may want to hear.

These techniques have been used by large businesses for a long time. There is no reason why you could not adopt a version of any of these strategies for use in your business regardless of size. Think of the reaction you could engender by actually asking customers for their opinion. Think of all the messages you are communicating - that your competition is not. You are telling your customers that they matter, that what they think influences how you conduct your business.

Clearly these are strategies 'outside the box' of usual small business practice. But then you do not want to be a 'usual' small business, do you?

The next installment of this series will discuss examples of excellence in customer service among small minority and women owned businesses.