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What Do Your Customers Think?

Take a survey and find out.
November 1, 2002
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/56854

(YoungBiz.com) - A big part of running a successful business is providing the products or services your customers want. Sounds easy enough. But when it comes down to it, how do you really know what they want?

You can ask, of course, by simply bringing it up in casual conversation or directly soliciting feedback when you're doing business. But customers don't always say what's on their mind. That's why your best bet could be a survey.

Go It Alone...
That's exactly what Christina Smith, 14, of Long Island, New York, decided to do when she was thinking about starting her own business in 1999. Smith knew she wanted to cater to dog owners. Just one problem: Although she loved dogs, she didn't own one, so she didn't know what products pet owners would be willing to buy. That's when she decided it was time to do her own survey and find out.

At the time, Smith had just completed a class on starting a business, so she knew that talking to potential customers would help her figure out what products she should offer. "I did about 80 surveys," she says.

After studying the responses, Smith decided to make and sell custom-designed dog collars. She then wrote a business plan and started the company she owns today: Cute Paws.

Her survey results were on target. Not only were Smith's custom dog collars a hit, but a short time later, customers began requesting cat collars, too.

Or Not?
When it comes to creating a customer survey, business owners have a choice. Like Smith, they can write and conduct their own survey. Or they can go the route 'trep Jermaine Anderson of Chicago took. When it was time to expand his business, Anderson decided to hire a market research company.

Anderson, 19, owns Celestial Graphics, a company that produces custom business cards. Though he knew the customers in his area liked his card designs, he wasn't sure how people in other parts of the city would react.

Anderson decided a professional survey would be worth the money. "You have to make sure you do market research," he says. "That way, you won't be investing your money in the wrong places."

As a result of the survey, Anderson decided to expand his product line to include mugs and T-shirts. Soon, his list of regular customers quadrupled and he even started doing business in neighboring states.

Getting Results
When it comes to conducting a survey, think results (which method will give you the answers you need?) and cost. You could do it yourself, like Smith did, or spend the extra bucks and hire an outside firm. So, which path will you choose? While you're making up your mind, here are five tips for getting the most out of your survey.

1. Do it online. If you want results, consider conducting your survey online--either by e-mail or through your Web site--rather than by phone or mail. It's a very cost-effective choice. And think about it this way: Are you more likely to respond to an e-mail right away, or return a phone call? Most of us respond quickly to e-mail.

2. Do it yourself. Hiring a professional research firm doesn't guarantee that your results will be better than what you could obtain on your own. Remember, you understand your market better than anyone else.

3. Stay on course. Focus on gathering the information that's most important to you, such as product and service needs or price expectations. Keep your survey simple and to the point. If the question won't yield insight into the topic, eliminate it.

4. Test the survey. Consider test-marketing your survey before you send it out to the masses. You'll then be able to modify any questions that aren't getting the results you expected or ones that people skipped because they were worded poorly. Always give the person the option to check "don't know." And ask for personal data last. That way, your respondent will be more at ease, and you'll more likely obtain that critical information.

5. Offer an incentive. Your respondents will be more likely to complete the survey with a small token of your thanks for their time and energy. But try to keep your incentive unrelated to the survey questions. For example, if you're trying to measure your customers' attitudes about price, offering a discount as an incentive will attract people who seek out low prices--which will return biased results. Instead, offer a free product, like a coffee mug, for example, if you own a gift shop.

Bang for Your Buck
The bottom line is, you want to get the most information for your business by spending the least amount of your hard-earned cash. To stay efficient and not forfeit time with your business, getting help from a market research company could be the right path for you. On the flip side: Conducting your own survey keeps your money where you need it most--in your business.