Tapping the Power of Feedback

Technology can now let even the smallest companies conduct customer-service surveys. Here are some do's and don'ts to ensure success

By Karen E. Klein

Q: I own an executive-recruiting agency. I'd like to establish a follow-up program to check in with my clients and ask what they thought of my service, if they would use me again, and if not, why. I want the responses to be anonymous, because I know people won't be completely honest otherwise. Where do I start? I can't afford to hire a marketing firm.

-- C.J., Whittier, Calif.

A: Surveying your clients is a terrific way to get feedback and keep in touch with people that you want as repeat customers. Your willingness to put out a survey and -- presumably -- heed the constructive criticism that comes back to you shows your clients that you're interested in improving your service.

The good news about customer-satisfaction surveys is that technology automates the process, making it cheaper and easier than ever. And you don't have to hire a marketing agency to conduct a survey for you. The bad news: With the ease and cost-effectiveness of surveys, an epidemic of "survey fatigue" is spreading. If your customers are inundated with surveys every time they do a transaction online or over the phone, it may be tough to get them to respond.

Jonathan Goldhill, principal of Los Angeles-based The Growth Coach, says he has conducted a couple of automated surveys and found good results. "You can get honest responses by the usual method of assuring respondents that their responses will be anonymous and kept confidential," he adds.

THEIR SITE OR YOURS.

  You don't need any particular technical expertise, because online survey companies typically allow you to open an account, pay via credit card, set up your survey, and send it out via their Web site, so you don't have to purchase or install software to do the job.

Most online survey companies allow you to choose whether you want to pay for access to their site for a particular period of time, on a survey-by-survey basis, or based on how many responses you get (this option is typically for a large company sending out many surveys). Goldhill recommends Zoomerang and Survey Monkey. Prices are reasonable: For $75 a month, or $599 a year, you can buy premium survey package from Zoomerang. It also offers a basic survey package that allows you to set up a short survey and view results online for a limited time, for free.

Tampa-based E Solutions offers a content-management program that enables businesses to conduct real-time surveys on their own Web sites. Depending on the complexity and project size, costs range from around $200 to $2,000.

You can send out a link to the survey, which would be housed on your site but on a concealed page not available to the general public, in a thank-you note after a transaction or service is completed, says Ken Brasch, regional sales director for E Solutions. Such a survey could give clients the option to add their name or submit their feedback anonymously.

FREEBIES MAY HELP.

  A nice feature of the online survey is that you typically get results instantly, so you can take corrective action immediately or use feedback proactively in your sales and management departments.

Once you're up and running, the real challenge is getting your clients to actually complete the survey. "I recommend that you give away something of value to them that will encourage them to reply," Goldhill says, "perhaps a discount on their next service, or a related service that they all use. Carefully thinking through this offering can make the difference between a successful survey and one less informative."

If you want to offer a reward for doing the survey, but you also want to give participants the option to take it anonymously, you can use a third-party reward-fulfillment center, Brasch suggests. "Once your client fills out the survey and clicks the 'submit' button, they get taken to a 'thank you' page, and they fill out their information for the reward. But that information doesn't go back to you," he says.

GIVE A HEADS-UP.

  Along with an incentive, consider time constraints. Make sure the survey is brief -- no one has time to spend more than a couple of minutes -- and to the point. You might include one or two long-answer forms, where your customers can write in their own responses -- but no more than that. It's much less daunting to check a box than it is to compose paragraphs.

Ask an employee, colleague, or trusted customer to help you decide which questions will elicit the most helpful, forthright answers about your service. Also, tell clients in person that you'll be sending them a survey after the transaction is completed and that you hope they'll take a moment to fill it out. Explain that you're interested in finding ways to deliver extra value to your customers in the future, and you covet their input on how to do that.

If your clients are expecting a survey and know you're anxious to hear what they think of your company, they're more likely to participate than if they just get an unwanted e-mail in their inboxes.

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues

Edited by Rod Kurtz

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