"Understand your customer" is marketing's primary mantra. Smart entrepreneurs are always searching for new information on what makes their customers tick. This goes way beyond knowing simply who they are; it goes into how customers live, work, play and think. And the most-sought-after information--marketing's Holy Grail--is up-to-the-minute insight into how, what, when or where customers buy.

As a small-business owner, you may be operating on a tight research budget, which means that some of the primary research tools used by big businesses may be prohibitively expensive for you. For instance, focus groups in multiple cities or mall intercept studies that survey thousands of consumers may be out of your reach. But you have one healthy advantage over the marketers in big businesses with deeper pockets: you're closer to the customer than they can ever be.

Want to know how your customers think or behave? Just ask them. Here are three effective and low-cost ways to gain insight into your customers or clients.

1. Survey your customer list.
Does your in-house customer list include e-mail addresses? If not, it's time to update that database. One of my coaching clients, Media Specialists Inc., has just finished calling its 900 customers to update the company database with e-mail addresses. By augmenting its postal mail and telephone communications with e-mail, the company will save thousands of dollars a year and execute its campaigns more quickly.

Once you have a current list of customer e-mail addresses, you can take advantage of the new, low-cost online survey tools available to small businesses. In this age of "do not call lists" and voicemail, online surveys can be more effective than costly telephone surveys. And you don't need any background in research because the best of these online products provide professionally written survey templates. ListenUp! Survey from Constant Contact , for example, offers dozens of customizable surveys and lets you easily manage and clean your e-mail list. It also schedules and sends your surveys and interprets your results with comprehensible graphs and charts. Surveys can be sent to up to 2,500 customers as often as you like for about $30 a month.

2. Make your website interactive.
There are several smart ways to turn your website into an effective research tool. Add a box with a single polling question to your main page and regularly ask questions that engage visitors and provide important customer data for you. Simple "yes or no" or multiple-choice questions work best. Questions can range from opinions, such as a vote for the most popular new style of shoe, to behaviors, such as a multiple-choice question concerning how frequently visitors dine out.

To gather more in-depth information than a polling question can reveal, offer an incentive to complete a survey. For example, if you're a retailer, you can use your print advertising to direct customers to a coupon on your website, and when visitors select the coupon, ask them to complete the survey.

While not strictly research tools, blogs and message boards are effective mechanisms for gaining insight into the chief issues and concerns of your customers--or at least the most vocal ones. These interactive tools also build a sense of community and give visitors a compelling reason to return to your site. If you manage your own website, you can begin your search for polling, blogging, chat and forum software at WebBuilderZone.com .

3. Create an off-line information pipeline.
Savvy entrepreneurs also get their information the old-fashioned way--by directly asking questions and listening carefully to the answers. Since you're close to your customers or clients, you have the ability to work with them individually or in small groups for the express purpose of better understanding their needs and the ways you can fill them. Whether you do your "digging" as part of a sales call or structure an informal roundtable with a select group of clients, the overriding goal is to focus on uncovering needs, expectations, areas of customer satisfaction and dislikes relating to your product or service. The key is to make this behavior consistent and ongoing, not just a knee-jerk reaction when sales are off or there's an unexplained disconnect between your message and the market.

Salespeople are your front line for customer and competitive information. Formalize the way you gather their input by structuring meetings between sales and marketing at least once a month. Ask salespeople to share their insights concerning customer reactions to promotions, products and services. And ask the marketing team to present its upcoming campaigns and new promotions to get a quick read from your salespeople on how these new marketing campaigns will be received by customers. When you combine these tactics for off-line listening with online studies you'll get a revealing snapshot of your actual customer that will inform all of your marketing decisions.