For The Asking

How can you increase profits? Just ask your customers.

While planning for the next few decades is critically important to a company's success, small businesses can also increase profits by finding out what perceptions exist today. Two ways to accomplish this market research are through surveys and focus groups. And luckily, you don't need a Ph.D. in marketing to take advantage of either one.

Surveys don't have to be expensive, formal or time-consuming to be of value to your business. Even a simply structured survey enables you to get feedback from your customers. Most survey methods used by small firms rely on one or more of the following methods:

  • Telephone interviews. This is an inexpensive and fast way to obtain small quantities of relatively impersonal information from your customers. Keep your questions simple, clearly worded and brief--most people don't like to spend a lot of time on the phone answering questions.
  • Direct-mail interviews. If you want to broaden the base of your survey, this method may be just the ticket. Your survey can be as simple as a postcard or as elaborate as a cover letter, questionnaire and reply envelope. Keep questionnaires to one page, and ask no more than 15 questions. Like telephone interviews, direct-mail surveys should be structured with "yes/no" or "agree/disagree" boxes to facilitate responding easily. Don't request more than one or two write-in answers.
  • Fax and e-mail interviews. Many of the same principles used for direct-mail interviews also apply to faxed or e-mailed surveys. One exception: Never send an unsolicited fax that is more than one page long. Give clear instructions on how to respond, and be appreciative in advance for the data you get back.

Focus groups are an effective way to get in-depth information, generate new ideas, test new concepts or products, or measure your business against perceptions about your competition. These groups usually consist of eight to 12 individuals brought together to discuss a particular subject. Sessions usually take between one and two hours, and are always taped.

When conducting a focus group, you should pay participants for their involvement, hold the sessions in a central location, provide name tags (first names only), and encourage an open-ended flow of ideas.

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This article was originally published in the September 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: For The Asking.

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