Better survey questions — Avoiding the common pitfalls of market research.

I’m a big proponent of market research.

I’ve seen, first hand, how it can be integrated seamlessly into the operations of a rapidly-growing start-up. (They tracked customer satisfaction every week, in every new store, and grew into a billion-dollar brand.)

I’ve seen how research insight leads some brands in profitable new directions, and others back to their roots. And I know that some of the greatest ad campaigns of all time were built on tidbits of information from surveys and focus groups. Can you say, “Got Milk?”

But I’ve also done my share of marketing campaigns based on nothing more than gut instinct and the client’s opinion. It can be done, but believe me, it leads to a lot of false starts and disappointing results.

Business owners often skip the research because they think they already know it all. The sales manager says “I’ve been in this business for 25 years, I know what customers want.”  Or the owner says “We tried that already, it didn’t work.” Or the marketing assistant says “We have some data from Survey Monkey on that.”

Don’t bet on it.

There are five good reasons why most business owners get crummy results from their market research efforts:

1. They lack perspective.

2. They ask the wrong questions.

3. The questions are poorly worded.

4. They talk to the wrong people.

5. They don’t know what to do with it once they have it. Or they just don’t want to hear it.

First, let’s talk perspective. As the old saying goes, you can’t read the label if you’re stuck inside the bottle. Most people are so wrapped up in the day-to-day business they can’t see the bigger issues well enough to ask the right questions. Their own bias creeps in at every turn.

Don’t kid yourself. You’re too close to it! An outsider’s perspective, and the objectivity that a professional brings to the table, is really the only way to get research that you can take to the bank.

Your lack of perspective leads directly to problem number two: The content of the questions themselves.

A lot of time and money is wasted asking research questions that are dumber than a rock. For instance, I recently ran across an industry survey about the current plight of private country clubs. It’s no big secret that they’re hurting, and yet the survey started with a series of questions: “Has the economy effected your operation in the past year?”  “Are you marketing your club more aggressively?”

Duh!

Don’t waste time asking questions you already know the answers to. Clarify your objectives before you start, and then stick to subjects that honestly baffle you.

Problem number 3:  The issue of semantics. There’s incredible nuance in the wording of a good questionnaire. In fact, how you ask a question can often guarantee results, one way or another.

Polling companies have known this for 50 years. That’s why there are Democratic pollsters and Republican pollsters. They can always get the results to skew in their preferred direction. Left or right.

Here’s a story that illustrates my point perfectly:

There were two priests who both wanted to know if it was permissible to smoke and pray at the same time. So they wrote to the Pope for a definitive answer. One priest phrased the question ‘Is it permissible to smoke while praying?’ and was told it is not, since prayer should be the focus of one’s whole attention. The other priest asked if it is permissible to pray while smoking and was told that it is, since it is always permissible to pray.”

Chances are, if you’re writing your own questionnaire, you’re leading the witness.

The fourth problem arises when you ask good questions of the wrong people. Many companies have feeback systems for their customers, but they never hear from their non-customers. Sometimes it’s more useful to poll the people who are loyal to your competitor’s brand. Why they don’t buy is just as important as why they buy.

When you do research make sure you have a representative sample of people on all sides of an issue. If you’re working with a research firm, insist on samples of real people, not professional focus group respondents.

The last, and probably biggest problem, is your ability to do something with the research once you have it.

In most companies there’s a huge gap between insight and execution. In the market research industry, that’s the most common complaint: Quite often, comprehensive studies end up on the back shelf, filed under “that’s interesting, now get back to work.”

All kinds of things can sabotage your best efforts. Sometimes corporate culture gets in the way. At HP the engineers run the show and even the most analytical marketing guys take a back seat. Innovation is a core value, so they might ignore market research in order to launch quickly and demonstrate their engineering prowess.

It’s like the software business. When they launch a product everyone knows it’s just v.1.0., and it will quickly to be replaced by v1.2 and 1.3. Launch first, ask questions later.

So make sure you’re in the position to act on the information you gather. Otherwise, don’t bother. Ask yourself some tough questions ahead of time…

• Do you have the brainpower inside the company to analyze the data and understand its implications? If not, can you hire someone who does?

• Do you have the financial resources to implement changes based on the analysis?

• Is the subject you’re researching important enough? Is it a C-level initiative, or just a mid-level management thing?

• Are you empowered to act? If not, who is? Do you have the allies you need to get things done?

If you can answer yes to most of those questions, great. Here’s a fairly simple (simplified) approach that will produce information you can actually use.

In general, there are two types of research the typical business owner or manager can do:  Listening and asking.

It’s best to start with strategic listening because that will keep you customer focused. Put your own agenda aside and listen to what your front-line employees have to say. They hear it all. Revisit the customer feedback forms you’ve been collecting. And by all means, tap into the new, online sources.

The internet makes easy to monitor what’s being said about you and your company. New media outlets, such as blogs and Facebook and Twitter are very useful for passive listening efforts.

“I have numerous examples where we’re finding key nuggets, insights, aha moments and watch-outs coming from various online sources,” said Kristin Bush, Senior Manager of Consumer & Market Knowledge at Procter & Gamble. “It’s definitely an area that we’re exploring quite heavily… we get the unprompted voice of the consumer, the real sentiments, the real points of view.  I think there’ s a huge opportunity in this space, and the companies that really figure out how to listen and respond in meaningful ways are going to win in the markeplace.”

Once you’ve tapped all the existing lines of communication, then follow up on with traditional market research techniques. Surveys, focus groups, and in-person interviews are useful for asking specific questions and probing deeper into topics that come up on the blogosphere.

New on-line tools make it easier than ever to get a survey done. But the do-it-yourself approach of Survey Monkey won’t pass the muster unless you follow the guidelines above.

Good luck.

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Elise Redlin-Cook | Vertical Measures Reply

This a great list of things to keep in mind when polling your customers. I also really like that you touched on preparing a process for what to do with this information once you’ve mined for it. Many companies lose sight of what their objective actually was when they start getting into the data.

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