What do your customers think about the products or services you sell? How satisfied are they with a recent event you hosted or the interaction they had with one of your employees?

You may have gotten the answers to some of these questions from a phone conversation, an occasional e-mail or speaking to a customer in person. But in these cases, you're only hearing from the most "vocal" customers.

The best way to get balanced feedback quickly from a group of your customers--vocal or not--is to ask through an online survey.

Get ongoing, actionable feedback.
Surveys get the pulse of your customers by revealing their satisfaction levels and preferences. A constant flow of customer feedback will guide you in making improvements that positively impact your bottom line.

As a small business, you already have a few advantages over larger competitors. First, you're agile and can change direction quickly. Online surveys provide the information that larger companies have been gathering and relying on for years. But because you are nimble, you can make changes quickly--the kind that delight your customers and build their loyalty.

The greatest advantage you have is your customer relationships. Because you have fewer customers, you can build stronger, closer relationships by creating a dialogue; surveys initiate that process.

Measure customer satisfaction.
A monthly satisfaction survey sent to a small group of your customers will let you chart your progress over shorter periods of time and shows any impact your changes have made.

Sending a brief survey following a sales transaction, event or interaction gets immediate feedback while the experience is still fresh in customers' minds. This type of survey gets the customer's "gut" reaction.

Learn customer preferences.
Learn about your customers' preferences by breaking them into groups based on what they say they want from you. Use what you learn to target your communication and service to those customers. For example, if an online coffee vendor finds his customers prefer one coffee over another, he can send them relevant information. Give your customers what they want, and you will get more of what you want.

Uncover new ideas.
Finally, when you send an online survey, you are casting a wider net for ideas. Get their feedback on ideas you have (would they be interested in a new product line you are considering? What price would they be willing to pay for a certain service?). Ask for additions and improvements you can make to your current offerings. In both cases, you are sure to get some great ideas that you haven't thought of.

In today's market, customers expect a lot from the businesses they buy from. When you send them a survey you are saying, "I care about you and understand how important you are to my business." Your customers, in return, will give you invaluable information you can use to make improvements that will lead to an improved bottom line.

Want tips on how to create an effective survey? In part two of this two-part series, I'll cover steps to creating an effective online survey.

Steve Oriola is vice president and general manager of the strategy and execution for ListenUp! Survey, Constant Contact's new online survey product.Steve has more than 18 years of experience bringing products and services to the small business market.Steve speaks on a range topics, including survey best practices for small businesses and organizations.