Q: I need to reach potential clients for our environmental engineering consulting firm to learn about their buying habits, styles, personality types and favorite ways of receiving advertising or communications. How do you recommend I learn about them?

A: Telephone surveys are a terrific way to gather in-depth information on B2B prospect groups, as they often have a higher completion rate than written surveys. It's best to rely on the services of a qualified research company, though finding one with expertise in your field may take a bit of legwork. You can start with the searchable database of research firms published by Quirk's Marketing Research Review or by contacting the leading trade publications in your field for specific referrals and published lists of research companies.

Once you've selected a research firm, you should provide an outline of what you want to learn from your survey and discuss the most logical order in which to present a total of about eight to 10 questions. It will be the firm's job to design a 10-minute telephone survey that relies predominantly on closed-ended questions (those that can be answered with yes or no or a multiple-choice answer) but also incorporates a few open-ended questions that allow your prospects to answer in their own words. Focusing on closed-ended questions will make the survey results easier to analyze, particularly if you have a large survey group. If you're looking for predominately qualitative information, you may need to talk with as few as 50 prospects, but if you want projectable data with a low margin of error, several hundred completed surveys will be required.

Is your prospect base quite small? If so, you may choose not to hire a research firm and instead approach this as a sales challenge. Design a call report (a form used to record the outcome of each sales contact) that includes all your most important questions, and use it diligently when calling on your prospects by phone or in person. This is the best way to build relationships while gathering the vital data you need.