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How's Business? Ask Your Employees

Don't waste money marketing to new customers if even your employees aren't sold. Take their pulse with a survey.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Editor's note: This article is excerpted from The 10-Minute Marketer's Secret Formulafrom Entrepreneur Press.

One of the hardest concepts to get across to owners is that your employees and staff are also your customers. You can do all the clever in the world, but if your staff isn't on board, if they aren't engaged and enthusiastic, the results will be unsatisfying.

The first input you want is from all the managers in your business. Create a system--a hospitable work environment--that encourages your managers to speak openly and honestly with you. It's their neighborhood, it's their career, and they should have a sense of ownership in any plan you come up with. Otherwise, they won't help make it effective.

Managers will often find something to complain about. That's okay. Let them complain. Everybody needs to vent, and you need to leave your ego at the door. You want the truth, not a response that makes you feel good. You want a candid evaluation from every internal customer, from your top-line managers right down to the guy who vacuums the floor. What do they really think about the product or service, the pricing, the atmosphere--all of it?

It regularly amazes my clients when they learn that their managers have been thinking that something needs to be improved or changed but haven't felt comfortable about speaking up or simply haven't had time in the rush of doing everyday business. You need to give your managers a sense that you really want their opinions about your business: What are the opportunities? What are your strengths and weaknesses?

The Power of Anonymity

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When reaching out to staff, make sure your internal-customer survey lets your employees express their opinions anonymously. These are the people who know the day-to-day business, who are the point of contact between your business and your customers, and you need their unfiltered advice. They can make or break you.

Many clients tell me at the start of this process, "The staff are just going to slam us." That's not always the case, but if they do, there might be an important lesson in it. The insights that come out of these surveys frequently surprise business owners and managers.

We often hear managers complain to us, "My people aren't that bright," only to discover that they not only are bright, but caring and filled with valuable knowledge and insight.

The internal-customer survey must be self-administered, confidential, and anonymous. Your staff must not have any concern that one of them is going to be identified because she's writing with a blue pen and somebody else is writing with black and the boss is going to know who wrote which.

Put a staff member in charge of this process and hold an all-company meeting. Tell your staff why they're being asked to fill out the survey, that their feedback will be taken seriously, and that everything will be confidential and totally anonymous. To demonstrate that you mean what you say, have your employees drop their completed surveys into a pre-addressed box that is sealed in their presence for shipping to a research company for tabulation.

Anonymity and confidentiality are important. Comments like "My manager is looking over my shoulder right now as I'm filling out this survey" are no help to you in formulating your marketing program. It costs surprisingly little to have a research company administer the survey and tabulate the results, so don't cut corners and compromise your employees' confidence by trying to do it yourself. Show complete respect for their opinions and privacy. Build trust. What you'll get back are trustworthy employees.

In your internal survey, ask employees how they feel about themselves, how they feel about the company as an employer, what they think about the marketing. We often find that employees hate their uniforms, even the ones who get to wear a chic button-down black shirt and black pants. You may not want to change things, but you should know what they think before you go out and spend a fortune on your next set of uniforms.

Ask about their feelings on and diversity in the workplace. There are enormous and rapidly growing opportunities in marketing to diverse backgrounds, and you ignore these at your peril.

How do your employees feel about the and benefits you offer compared with other companies in the area? Of course they're going to think their salary and benefits are lower, but often this issue can be handled very simply. If you know they're misinformed, you can go out and do a little research yourself. If you're right, hold a staff meeting and show them in black and white that the grass is not really greener on the other side. You may, in this situation, even be able to reinforce some of the benefits you do offer, benefits your staff may not know about or understand.

If your employees are right, if their salaries and benefits are indeed on the low side, maybe you'll have a clue to high turnover, or low quality of staff performance, or any of a host of other issues. It all counts, and everything sells.

Before you try to draw in new customers, make sure you're serving your current customers well. The best way to find out is to ask your employees.

What Does It Mean?

What you do with the results of this survey is look inside the four walls of your business to see the big picture, and the many smaller pictures that make it up. These surveys should be broken down to give a total score for each store, if you have more than one outlet. Within the store, they should be broken down by category. In the food service business--the largest employer in America, with 12 million people working--you want results tabulated for back-of-the-house (kitchen staff), front-of-the-house (dining room and bar), and .

In an auto dealership, you'd break it down by service (garage and service desk separately!), parts, sales (used and new), accounting, and so on. Be creative and look inside your four walls to see who your internal customers are, what categories they naturally fall into, and how they can be surveyed.

If you run a professional service business, such as an architecture firm, you've got a front-of-the-house in your receptionists; you've got back-of-the-house internal customers in your design and drafting staff; you've got your sales executives, legal advisors, subcontractors, billing and accounting, and so on.

We often see these surveys produce fascinating and divergent results. You'd be surprised how many management surveys show zero percent recommending their own business as a place to either patronize or work. Guess where a business with that result needs to start in its marketing? If your managers hate your business, you need to figure out how to get them excited, engaged, or on their way to another job!

In a chef-driven restaurant, we often see that the back-of-the-house scores are better than the front. And if it's a business where there's a lot of customer contact and service, the scores in the front of the house will tend to be better.

Here's an important survey question, and the answer will be one of the most telling you get. Ask your employees if they see your business as a place they would recommend to friends or associates--either to patronize or to work. If your employees would not recommend you, you're missing a huge opportunity for improvement. Your staff, as your internal customers, should be among your most powerful marketing tools.

Pay close attention to how likely your staff are to recommend your business as a place to work. If only one out of four employees does so, you need to address that before you start any external marketing program. Otherwise, you're wasting your efforts and driving customers to a bad experience, the opposite of the result you seek.

Sample Survey Questions

Even if you hire a company to administer the survey to your employees, you may want to have them include the following questions:

Rating System: 1 = I do not agree, 3 = somewhat agree, 5 = fully agree

___ 1. I use my talents well at work; my skills and abilities are being fully utilized.

___ 2. I get along well with my supervisors.

___ 3. I am comfortable expressing my true feelings to others in a safe way.

___ 4. I view my here more as a career than as a job.

___ 5. There are things about working here that encourage me to work hard.

___ 6. There are work standards in place that enable me to judge my own job performance.

___ 7. Management is concerned with each individual co-worker's long-term goals.

___ 8. I look forward to going to work.

___ 9. I am asked for input when marketing programs are being evaluated; I feel I am an integral part of any marketing program.

___ 10. I am satisfied with my chances for getting ahead in this organization in the future.

___ 11. Would you recommend our business/establishment/service as a place to work?

___ 12. Would you recommend our business/establishment/service to your friends and family?

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