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Getting the Low Down that Matters

Do you know what your customers are thinking? Do they love you or hate you? Are they in the market considering other options right this very minute?
If you’re like most tech executives, you can answer that question only vaguely. You probably glean information from occasional market research, fire drills on hot issues, and anecdotes from the sales force, and complaints to the support line. But knowing how many people you’ve pissed off is not the same as knowing how many people you’ve delighted, and doing market research once in a while doesn’t give you the consistent flow of information you need to lead your business, let alone your market.
Without customer insights, businesses squander vast amounts of time and money chasing after new ideas, only to find that they’ve pursued the wrong idea, missed an important opportunity, or ignored a problem until it became too large to fight.
Most companies settle for incomplete market information because, until recently, market research was too difficult and too expensive to conduct more than occasionally. But that’s no longer true. Developments in online research technology have made it simple for every size company-from start ups to global brands-to know exactly what their customers are thinking, in exquisite detail, updated as often as needed.

The New Market Research Process

Until recently, the process for conducting a market research was ponderous. You had to select a vendor, go through several rounds of survey design, wait for the study to be completed, and then wait some more for the report to be written. The process took anywhere from six weeks to three months.
New survey hosting companies make it possible to do much of this work online, and with much greater speed. Instead of hiring people to make phone calls, you invite your customers to come to a website and fill out the survey. You can design the survey itself online, give access to it immediately, and watch live updates of the results as they come in. Some survey hosting companies include zapsurvey.com, keysurvey.com, surveymonkey.com, and websurveyor.com. There are a lot of others, so you should check carefully to make sure the company you choose can handle your needs. Look for a survey design tool that you’re comfortable with and a good online FAQ, and make sure the company provides support if you have questions.
Using these new tools, you can easily run a survey with several thousand respondents. Total time is about two weeks from start to finish, and in an time-senstive client situation we once ran a survey from start to finish with defined insights in just five business days.
This incredible reduction in time makes it possible to use research in ways most companies have never thought about. Even small companies can now conduct tracking studies, just like a US Presidential campaign. Picture yourself receiving weekly updates on your customers’ satisfaction and intent to repurchase. You can track the effect of a new direct mail campaign, or you can get an almost instant read on the effect of a competitor’s new product announcement.
The online survey services are powerful but can’t solve all your problems. Here are five important pointers to keep in mind:

  1. Track issues you can act on. Most companies research traditional attitudes like brand awareness and intent to purchase. These are important, but often it’s even more useful to probe on what problems and frustrations your customers have. User problems are opportunities for you to add value and increase loyalty.

    Make yourself uncomfortable. Ask customers how they feel about your tech support, what complaints they have about the channel, and what features they dislike most in your products. Ask the same questions about your competitors, and look for places where you’re behind. Ask yourself how the competition might be able to use those weaknesses, and head them off before they attack.

  2. Build your customer list. To make an online survey work, you have to feed customers into it. That means you need a list of registered users and e-mail addresses. You should be keeping a registered customer list anyway for marketing purposes, but now you need to treat it as more than just a marketing tool. Many companies use the registered customer list as a way to fill a sales shortfall when the quarter’s coming in a little low-”quick, let’s e-mail out a promotion.” But if you spam the list with promotions and advertising messages too often, the customers will start ignoring your e-mails. You need their cooperation to make a survey work!

    The cost of failing to keep a good mailing list is pretty substantial. You can rent one from an online list management firm like eRewards, Greenfield, or Survey Sampling. Depending on the type of people you’re looking for, renting the list can cost you many tens of thousands of dollars. Renting a list also adds a week or more to the time needed to conduct a survey.

  3. Ask Smart Questions. You need to pick the right sample size, and you need to know how to write survey questions. The old saying about “garbage in, garbage out” holds true here. Although you don’t need a degree in statistics to do this, you should have a basic understanding of how surveys work and what not to do. For example, when asking customers to rate something on a one to whatever scale, you should always give an even number of choices (usually 1-4 or 1-6). If you give them an odd number of choices (1-5) too many people will pick the middle number just to avoid taking a position. It skews your results. Many sources exist to get basic training in surveying. Or you can hire us to help you.
  4. Make it matter. Surveying only matters if you use the information to draw insights and make good decisions. You don’t need to collect data for its own sake, you need to win markets. So make sure you take the time to ask the right questions, to process the data, to seek insights, and to apply “so what” questions so you can drive better decisions that cause you to lead and win your market.
  5. Know your limits. Unless you have market research professionals on your staff, stick to simple surveys of your installed base. For complex studies involving things like conjoint analysis (used for testing pricing on existing product lines, and feature tradeoffs), or for surveys measuring potential markets you haven’t sold to in the past, you still need the help of a professional. Remember also that new markets typically need different research methods. For example, Rubicon focuses on qualitative in-depth interviews with analysts and leading-edge buyers to get input on early market directions. There’s no way to automate that sort of research online.

But for basic tracking of your installed base, the tools exist to do it yourself. Starting now, there is no excuse for a tech company not knowing what’s happening with its customers. And remember, if you don’t track what your customers are thinking, chances are one of your competitors will.

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