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Admit it… you aren’t really surprised to hear that only 20% of businesses that collect data, act on findings from customer and client surveys, are you?  According to recent research in the USA, a staggering 80% of these businesses are going to the trouble of collecting data and then doing nothing with it.

Well, first, I suppose we have to congratulate them on actually going out and getting the data.  It’s a brave move and one that many more organisations ignore – far easier to bury heads in the sand… I mean, we already know what our customers think about us, don’t we?  What more could we find out?

In truth it’s often really hard to work out what to do with data collected.  The natural instinct is to read the report… nod a bit… and shake the head a bit more… then file it away and carry on with business-as-usual. So, how can we make research more productive and useful?

The golden rule for success is to work out what your business objectives and goals are, and then link your surveys to them.  Forget asking the ‘nice to have’ questions… what you need to know is whether your stakeholders agree with what you want to achieve, both in terms of its focus and its how realistic it is.

In plain English?  If you have put customer service at the top of the list of priorities, then your surveys need to get to the point quickly in terms of finding out how well you perform here.  If you’ve put new markets at the forefront, then you need to focus on them… ditto for new ranges, new services, marketing techniques or innovation.

So, some top tips for kicking off a survey programme:

1.     Know who you’re talking to – a generic survey just won’t cut it… new customers need to be treated differently to long standing, similarly lost jobs and targets.  Visualise the people you’re talking to and make sure you’ve considered the words they’ll like, their exposure to your brand/offerings and the time/inclination they have to complete a survey.  For example, long-standing customers may well write prose answers, whereas cold targets won’t.

2.     Know what you want to achieve – your questions must be utterly focused on what you want to achieve in your business.  Set yourself some questions that you want to have answers to at the end of the survey process and then work out what questions you need to ask to find the information.

3.     Get the format right – depending on 1 & 2 there are a number of ways of getting information – do your target audience work best on the phone or the internet?  Would they respond to an online survey better or a focus group?  Do you need to encourage discussion or do you have very fixed questions?  Different requirements mean different methods and this step should not be glossed over in favour of convenience.

4.     Get a balance – think about your questioning style in terms of pace, as well.  Use short questions to get background information and then add longer questions for more detail.  Consider how understandable the objective is from each question (or is it written in a way only you’ll understand).  Don’t beat around the bush.  If you know what you want to get out of it, don’t cover it up.

5.     Give and take – depending on your audience you may need to provide a small incentive to get them completing the survey.  It’s worth considering what the information is worth to you and being prepared to ‘encourage’ people to provide this valuable data.

6.     Give them feedback – there is nothing more encouraging than actually knowing what your information is going to be used for… and then seeing the results.  Be honest about your motives for surveying them and what you plan to do.

7.     Set an action plan – from each survey you should aim to have (at least) three clearly articulated actions.  At the end of the process sit down with your team and review the results together.  Discuss them and decide what you’re going to do and who is going to do it… then tell people what you’re going to do, so you’re committed.

And, of course, the golden rule?  Say thank you.  Your survey population is, by definition of the fact that they’ve taken the time to respond, keen to keep in touch.  They are database gold… treat them well and build on those relationships.

We’d love to hear your experiences and views on surveys and research.  What have you done that has worked?  Any horror stories that we can learn from?