Want To Know What Your Customers Want? Just Ask!

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Original Publication Exchange Magazine

Your customers are dying to tell you how to make your business or products more attractive to them - all you need to do is ask them.

If you want to stay in business, you must have customers, which means that you must also have something to offer that people want and are willing to pay for. But how do you know that what you offer is what people want? Even if you are making sales, how do you know that you couldn't increase your sales if you offered something else? The answer is simple: Just ask.

Conducting a survey is a sure-fire method for fine-tuning your product selection or the focus of your business. It's simple and costs very little. What does it involve? Nothing more than asking people what they want and how they want it. The only trick is asking the right questions, asking them effectively, and putting into action what you learn. Let me give you two examples.

Fine-Tune Your Product Selection
A retail chain specializing in kitchenware faced a bewildering choice of products to sell. In the past, it looked at what sold well, made educated guesses about what might sell well in the future, and then stocked up on those items. Sometimes its guesses were right, but often it was left with inventory it had to sell off "at cost." Then it got smart. The company began surveying customers, and shoppers who simply browsed their stores, on what they were looking for, what they would like the stores to have on hand, and what product features they wanted the most.

To accomplish this, the company designed a set of standard questions and a process for recording the answers. Next, managers and staff were trained on how to administer the questions. The company ran the survey for a month, analyzed the responses, then acted on the discoveries. The impact was dramatic. The firm dropped several unprofitable lines, bought items it had never considered before, and found suppliers who could provide it with products that had the features its customers wanted. The net result was a 64% increase in sales and a 14% increase in customers.

Focus Your Business Strategy
In this example, an organization that provided educational courses noticed that it was attracting fewer students as the number of its competitors increased. In response, it decided to conduct three different kinds of surveys: One survey asked students for their opinions on course offerings, the second assessed what skills and abilities prospective employers wanted in the students they sought to hire, and the third was sent to former students who were currently employed to assess post-graduation success levels.

These efforts paid off. The organization changed some of its offerings and added new ones, and was able to produce graduates who were in high demand. Applications for admission rose significantly. Employers hired more graduates from this organization than from any of its competitors, because they knew they would get people with the skills and capabilities they needed.

Asking your customers what they want and delivering on their requests is a guaranteed recipe for success. Many companies think this approach is unnecessary, because they believe they know more than their customers do. They are wrong, and they leave the door wide open for a savvier company to steal their customers.

Surveying isn't difficult; anyone can do it or find someone to help them. If you're surveying a small number of customers and are capable of analyzing the results, you can design your own questions. This is what the kitchenware retailer did. Larger, more complex surveys take a great deal of work to conduct, and you will find the whole process easier if you obtain the services of an expert. This was the approach taken by the educational organization, because its survey included the participation of several thousand people.

Use These Resources to Help Get You Started
Here are some links to sites where you can find books on designing a survey, software you can use to design a survey yourself, articles on how to conduct surveys, and firms that will do it all for you.

Books. Books range from the simple to the technically advanced. A good place to begin is with "Designing Surveys: A Guide to Decisions and Procedures," by Ronald Czaja and and Johnny Blair. Also, Central Michigan University Off-Campus Library Services produced an excellent bibliography on surveys .

Articles. Read tips on survey design or ways to fine-tune your survey process. For example, take a look at "10 Things to Know About Surveys " and " 10 Ways to Increase Response to Your Customer Surveys," among others.

Software. A variety of software packages is available, and you will want to examine the options carefully. Some provide you with everything you need to do Web-based, telephone, or paper-and-pencil surveys. Others are designed to help you with only one type of process. Some will allow you to survey any number of people, while others restrict you to a certain number of subjects or a limited number of questions. Many of them have optional packages that enable you to do more complex surveys. In my experience, none of these are as easy to learn and use as they promise to be. If you go this route, be prepared to tolerate a long learning process.

Firms offering complete survey services. Here again you will want to carefully investigate the options offered by each company. Some perform only one type of survey; others limit you to asking standard questions. Prices vary widely based on the level of sophistication you need, and all these services cost more than conducting the survey yourself — until you take into account the amount of your time it would take to match these companies' expertise. A reputable firm will make sure you get a survey that assesses exactly what you want to know.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.