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Surveys for Small Business: Want to know what your customers are thinking? Ask Them

By Mark Taylor | Small Business

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Want to know what your customers are thinking? Go ahead and ask them.

That’s the advice from some of the country’s best customer experience leaders. But how?

Shep Hyken, a St. Louis-based customer service consultant and author, said there is a simple question small businesses should ask their customers to gauge who would promote their business. “You ask on a scale 1-10, what’s the likelihood that you would refer us to your friends. A score of 9 or 10 signifies a promoter. Another question should be: why did you give the score you did? You can receive a lot of good information from those two questions,” Hyken said.

He said many survey tools are free or inexpensive. “Make sure that you have your customers’ email addresses and email them the survey. Make sure it’s fast and easy,” he said. “Survey Monkey is free, but Survey Monkey and others have deeper tools you can employ to achieve better analytics.”

Hyken said another favorite is: what one thing can we do to make our business better? “Whether it’s a bad or a good response, it gives you good information,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to improve on greatness.” He recommended focusing on the questions owners really want answered.

“If you have thousands of customers, ask different open-ended questions with different customer groups,” he said. “I would never ask what they don’t like about your company. Ask about an opportunity for improvement. You’ll get better answers if you phrase it differently.” Hyken said focus groups offer an opportunity to dig deeper into customer thinking on a more personal level.

“A mom and pop firm should invite specific customers for cookies and lemonade to pick their brain for 30 minutes. Owners need to be completely prepared and ask pointed, valid questions about how they can better serve them.” He advised recording the results, hopefully with a video recorder or tape machine, but at the very least by taking accurate notes. “Once you have data, what to do with it is the most important question. What actions is it telling you to take?” he said. “But if you don’t do anything, it’s a colossal waste of time and money.”

Embrace the Idea of Feedback

Jay Baer, a customer experience consultant and the author of: “Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers,” said before staring the process, owners need to really embrace all feedback culturally and strategically. “If you’re going to solicit information from your customers, know that some will be less than ideal. But you have to embrace that as a company in order to improve. The most overrated thing in life is praise. Sure it feels great to hear it,” Baer said. “But it doesn’t allow you the opportunity to improve.”

Baer, who operates an online marketing and customer service firm, Convince & Convert, in Bloomington, Ind., said small business owners need to approach surveys methodically, both quantitatively and qualitatively. “Owners should consider a larger customer survey and then face-to-face or phone contacts with at least six customers a month. You do the surveys to get statistically valid data. And while the monthly conversations with five or six customers are not statistically valid, every customer’s opinions are valuable and every one matters. Between the two you should get a sampling that yields valuable information.”

He said small businesses cannot afford to get defensive or angry when confronted with negative feedback. “For the customers, their experience is their truth. The worst thing you can do is to argue with them. You have to accept their version of events and try to improve yourself. We’ve found many small businesses don’t answer customer complaints because they can’t handle negativity.”

Karl Sharicz, founder of Quincy, Mass.-based CX Partners, LLC, said one mistake that small businesses often make when considering customer feedback is relegating the task to someone already in a full-time position, adding to a busy person’s work load. “They go out and grab a version of Survey Money with no idea how to design a survey or structure the questions,” he said.

He said many companies create enterprise level tools to manage customer feedback, but some  may not be affordable to small businesses. “You don’t have to spend a fortune. You do need someone who understands the process, how to design surveys and which questions to ask to obtain the insights you’re looking for. The process of what you do with that information is more important than the process of getting it.”

The Right Approach

Kylan Lundeen, marketing head for the Provo, Utah-based Qualtrics, a software research and survey firm whose mission he said is to democratize the customer experience. “Customer experience usually requires outsourced third party vendors,” Lundeen said. “Our firm provides the technology so you can do it yourself.”

Lundeen said most businesses approach customer feedback incorrectly.“They usually get feedback to learn what’s going wrong and try to stop the bleeding. And that’s natural. But the best way to approach customer feedback is trying to discover how your customers feel. You want to learn which of your customers buy more, shop more often and tell their friends. The key is to anticipate what your customers want before they ask for it and create a customer-centric culture. The process is about predicting, delivering and measuring, and responding to that feedback.”

He said gleaning a representative sampling of customers is key to assessing the survey’s validity.

“We help them to increase response rates dramatically and assist in creating the first few questions,” he said. “And instead of asking customers to take surveys online, build the survey right into an e mail, so they don’t have to go anywhere or take a lot of time. Some consumers like receiving the surveys through text mail, even using emojis to allow them to respond faster.”

Dan Ariely, a Duke University professor of psychology and behavioral economics, said large companies are very bureaucratic, and experimenting can be difficult for them. “Small companies can try out lots of small things and observe how people behave,” Ariely said. “Small businesses should expand their horizons and hopefully find better ways to do things.”

Karyn Furstman, vice president of customer experience for Safeco Insurance, said the first question small business owners should ask themselves before undertaking a customer feedback program is: “What am I going to do with this information?”

Furstman, who is chairman emeritus of the Wakefield, Mass.-based Customer Experience Professionals Association, said many businesses of all sizes use customer surveys to identify areas that will help their business improve and grow. “They want to know what they can do to keep the business they have, encourage repeat purchases and promote positive word of mouth,” she explained.

“If you want to use feedback to make sure your business is customer friendly, you don’t need big programs and large budgets. You can do that with something low tech like comment card or simply asking, “How did we do?”

She said Safeco uses a short survey shortly after interacting with agents. “We use this feedback to coach and recognize our people, fix our tools, refine processes, leverage best practices and act on innovation opportunities.”

Furstman said most small businesses can do this themselves or hire someone for a one-time engagement to set up a process of capturing feedback that can be maintained within standard business processes. “It’s important to have a solid plan for capturing the data, whether from a formal survey or less formal methods like one-on-one conversations.”

She said online survey tools like Survey Monkey, Survey Gizmo and Zoomerang make it easy to create surveys and questionnaires. “And they often provide guidance on the questions to ask. My advice is to keep it short, simple and leave plenty of room for customers to share their thoughts and ideas.”

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