Surveying your customers regularly and in a variety of ways is a critical part of running a successful business, regardless of your industry, product or service. Surveys measure satisfaction -- or dissatisfaction -- with your offerings, determine critical needs and offer an opportunity to effectively communicate and build truly personal relationships with your customers. And when you take both praise and criticism to heart in order to fulfill the true needs of these customers, you build invaluable loyalty that can create buzz around your business and bring in enthusiastic, highly qualified referrals.
Still, many business owners don't use regular surveys as an opportunity to reach out to their customers and really get to know them. For some reason, they fail to realize that satisfied customers are the key to staying in business for the long haul. As Paul Conforti, co-founder and CEO of Boston-based Final Desserterie, puts it, "In the game of business, sales and profit are how we keep score. But the game itself is all about customer satisfaction. Small-business owners need to be able to measure customer satisfaction to truly understand how well they're playing the game -- and customer surveys are the primary way of doing that."
The good news is, it's easier than ever to have this candid conversation with your customers. What's the best way to get started? Here are five things you need to know.
1. Focus on the narrative, not the number.
The most valuable part of any customer survey is the narrative. Make sure to include open-ended questions in any survey you launch that allow the customer to give you specific, actionable feedback. "It can be tempting to obsess over the rating your customers give you on surveys, but scores alone are somewhat meaningless," says Jon Picoult, founder and principal of Watermark Consulting, which specializes in customer experience. "Say a customer gives you the lowest rating -- 1 out of 5 -- now what? Absent an understanding of the rationale behind the score, there's not much you can do with that information." The same goes for great scores -- if a customer gives you the highest rating, you need to know why, so you can replicate that same experience and outcome with other customers and clients.
Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Safelite AutoGlass (https://www.safelite.com/index.jsp), adds that if you see consistently low numbers and negative comments surrounding a specific area of your operations, you need to dig deeper and find out why with informed follow-up questions. "The number alone doesn't give you the insight you need," he says. "It is important to understand why your customers are rating you the way they are, so follow-up questions can be helpful. However, avoid piling on too many questions that will make the survey overwhelming and reduce response rates." For example, Feeney uses the "Net Promoter Score" method based on Fred Reichheld's book" The Ultimate Question." The central question of this method is, "How likely is it that you would recommend this company to a friend or colleague?" He sends his survey within 24 hours of service in single e-mail with no follow-up reminders and gets a 20 percent response rate.
2. Don't stack the deck.
Objective feedback from your customers and clients is more useful than good feedback. Therefore, you should make sure the structure of your survey as well as the distribution method promotes the flow of truly candid customer opinions. The point of surveying is to get honest reactions. "With the advent of social media and online review sites, every guest experience has the potential to directly affect the perception of your small business," says Joe Shaw, marketing director of Jake's Burgers in Dallas, who uses the real-time mobile survey provider Survey on the Spot. "A well-designed survey system will help you to create a customer service-centric culture. As a small business competing against larger companies, developing a continuous improvement model is essential."
Picoult stresses that there is a true art to survey design. "If not engineered correctly, surveys can introduce bias into your feedback collection, undermining the quality of the information gathered and leading you to draw inappropriate conclusions," he says. Some examples of these pitfalls are biased rating scales that can give business owners "false positives," such as a five-point scale with three or more positive rating points, or the distribution of surveys only to customers that seem to be satisfied with service or products. Professional survey firms and even do-it-yourself online survey sites usually provide an array of free best practice survey design tips to help demystify the process that all business owners should use.
3. Choose survey methods that garner real information in real time.
Getting real information from real customers in real time is the best way for small-business owners to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their businesses, especially as their businesses grow. Conforti relies on real-time online surveys to get feedback about customers' experiences at his bakery. "Unless we are sole proprietors who get to see the customer face-to-face on a daily basis, customer surveys are an important tool for us to gather that information," he says. "Giving the customer easy access to communication channels like e-mail, website feedback, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are obviously important as well. But that type of feedback is usually driven by specific needs/issues of the customer. Surveys allow us to steer the conversation in directions that the customer may not have otherwise gone."
Many small-business owners are concerned that their business or their budget is too small to hire survey companies that will provide them with highly organized, accurately designed real-time surveys. Also, the breakneck speed of business is forcing a lot of rushed decisions that can lead to big slip-ups, like Verizon's recent recalled $2 charge and the Gap's failed logo redesign. Research is key, and when weeks and months are not an option, small-business owners don't have to rely on piecing together watered-down Twitter, Facebook and e-mail surveys, crowdsourcing or using free survey sites like SurveyMonkey when they really need serious, qualitative research. "We heard from our very first customer that he couldn't get guest satisfaction survey companies to return his call because he was too small," says Kimmel, co-founder and CEO of On The Spot Systems/Survey on the Spot. So he designed Survey on the Spot as a "self-serve, cost-effective solution to gather real-time feedback from customers. It also allows you to receive instant management alerts if an issue arises." This service and many other types of self-serve and full-service survey solutions can be integral to helping entrepreneurs quickly build their email lists and businesses that meet their customers' needs well.
4. Close the loop by reaching out and following up.
The most enlightening customer feedback often comes from just picking up the phone and having direct contact with customers. Your survey feedback is worthless if you don't take action on it. You need to put plans in place to resolve issues revealed by surveys and always reconnect with customers that express dissatisfaction. Bill Clerico, CEO of payment collection service WePay, has used many different types of surveys over the years, but has found he gets the most information through voice-to-voice conversations with his customers. "Last month the CEO, COO, marketing director, marketing coordinator, PR manager, three sales managers, three customer support reps and even some engineers got on the phone with a variety of customers -- both pleased and displeased -- and simply asked for feedback on the product, support and how they perceived WePay as a company," he says. "The information was more valuable than any digital survey we've ever completed."
And the mere act of surveying a customer can increase satisfaction, according to Picoult. But follow-up is where the real power lies. "Many companies never reach out to customers for feedback," he says. "When one does, customers generally view that favorably. But what really knocks their socks off is when they hear back from a company representative after completing a survey. Particularly if that survey indicated that the customer was dissatisfied in some way, getting a personalized call or note back can be stunning, in a good way. It sends a clear signal to customers that they don't often see -- namely, that this company genuinely cares about their opinion and is acting on their feedback."
5. Marinate in the survey feedback.
As someone trying to build a solid business, you need to immerse yourself in customer feedback. Don't stick survey results in a binder and forget about them without analysis. Share the results -- including verbatim customer comments -- and what these results have taught you with your entire staff. Take time to thoughtfully review survey responses and consider their implications. Picoult believes that for small-business owners, there's no more important business measure than the voice of their customers. "If you listen to them carefully, spotting what frustrates them, what delights them and what unmet needs they have, you'll be eminently better equipped to build a thriving company," he says. "Don't view the solicitation of customer feedback as an onerous, administrative exercise. It's the lifeblood of your business!"
Feeney adds, "You cannot live in denial. If the results are not what you want, don't sweep them under the rug and blame it on the method. Embrace the feedback and do something about it."
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