How're We Doin'?

The survey as strategic tool

A customer survey can do two important things: first, reveal who loves your company; and second, identify the problems keeping everyone else from loving it, too.

If you have only a few dozen customers, you may want to survey them all, by telephone or e-mail. If your customer base is large, you may find it simpler to survey only a portion of accounts, either by random sample or by size. Polling customers once a year usually suffices, but if you're in a fast-moving market, such as technology, you may want to do it more frequently.

Hiring a third-party outfit to conduct the survey might provide the most unbiased information, but it can be expensive. A telephone survey can run $2 to $4 per call, according to Fred Reichheld, a fellow at Bain & Co. If you're a small company with less to spend, a direct e-mail survey may be more practical.

A survey is only as good as its responses, so you'll want to ensure a decent response rate. Start with a mini-survey: Ask a few customers to come to lunch or to spend a few minutes on the phone with you so you can get their thoughts. Find out how many minutes they'd be willing to devote to a survey; whether they'd prefer to do it via e-mail, snail mail, or telephone; and what they'd like to hear about the survey results. They'll be more likely to participate if they think their comments will actually be used to improve the product or service they're buying. It may also help to dangle a carrot, offering participants, for example, a chance to win a prize or a discount.

The key is to keep your survey simple. Ideally, it should have only a handful of questions. Robert Schieffer, clinical associate professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, favors asking customers to use a one-to-five scale to answer the following questions: How satisfied are you with our company's product or service? How likely are you to buy from us again? And how likely are you to recommend us to a friend or colleague? Bain's Reichheld would ask only one: On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend us to a friend or colleague? Customers who answer 9 or 10—meaning they are very likely to recommend your company—will likely make good advocates.

Early this year, Guy Van Rooyen, chief executive officer of Donna Salyers' Fabulous-Furs in Covington, Ky., sent an e-mail survey to about 50,000 customers—roughly 20% of the company's customer base—who had provided their e-mail addresses on the Web site or while ordering from the company's catalog. In addition to asking customers of the 75-employee, $10 million faux-fur retailer whether they would refer a friend to the company, Van Rooyen asked them for additional comments. He received many complaints about shipping, prompting him to switch to United Parcel Service. The survey, says Van Rooyen, "allows us to focus on where our problems lie and where we need to improve our service." Next, he plans to call customers who gave Fabulous-Furs a very low rating to find out what he can do to improve his company—and maybe even turn his dissatisfied customers into future loyalists.

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