Customer Surveys: A Cost-effective Quantitative Tool for Primary Data Collection

Picking up where we left off in our last column, we'll now discuss surveying techniques. Surveys are one of the most often used and cost-effective quantitative methods, as opposed to qualitative instruments like focus groups, for obtaining primary information. Their advantages are many: They deliver standardized data (all respondents answer the same identically worded questions. They're relatively easy to administer. They can capture unseen motives and situations. Responses can be processed and analyzed quickly. And they enable researchers to easily segment audiences into comparison groups.

As is the case with all other research data collection, surveys require as a first step a carefully defined objective and a plan for use: What do you want find out from the research, and what will you do with the information when you get it? The more specifically you can define the problem you want to solve, the more useful the research will be. For example, you may want to know why your sheetfed sales have been declining. You've identified the problem (sheetfed sales are declining), now you need to put the problem in the context of your customers' work/life reality.

This often easier said than done. Let's say you're the commercial printer whose sheetfed sales are off. You'll first need to determine if only sheetfed customers, rather than those who also use your web or digital printing services, account for the decline. In this case, you'll want to segment your survey list into subsets. If you only provide sheetfed printing, you should not assume that customers are only concerned with your printing capabilities. Perhaps inadequacies in your prepress department account for declining sales. To set objectives, you need to drill down as far as you can to find possible root causes for the problem. This will help you design a questionnaire that minimizes bias and maximizes statistically relevant information.

Survey Methods

There a at least a dozen different types of surveying methods. However, our work with printing companies suggests three that are most cost-effective: Mail surveys, 1:1 in-office surveys, and computer-assisted telephone interviews (CATI). Each has its plusses and minuses.

Mail surveys. Over the years, we've designed and conducted many mail customer satisfaction surveys for printers. We've learned over the years, too, that response rates have dropped dramatically. To address the typically low response rates in mail surveys, incentives need to be added to the program to encourage participation. For instance, in our customer satisfaction benchmark surveys, which are repeatable over many months and sometimes years, we identify customers who will partner with clients to keep tabs on service, price, quality and added value offerings satisfaction levels. Their reward for participation can range from an Amazon.com gift certificate for each completed survey to their name being entered in a drawing for a new laptop.

Person-to-person surveys. In our experience, this method is extremely effective at the executive level. Leveraging their relationships with customers, print company owners and VPs of sales can win big points with a sit-down interview with C-level executives of your VIP accounts. In this case, questions need to be tailored to big picture issues. Again, if you're the sheetfed printer needing to know why sales are down, you'll ask about current and anticipated marketing expenditures in print, the Internet, and media advertising, and the motivations that drive expenditures. Depending on your objective, it may make more sense for an independent researcher to conduct the survey.

The advantages of 1:1 interviews are obvious: They reinforce the personal connection and build rapport. They're more comfortable for some people who may be distrustful of other methods. The interviewer can witness first-hand body language and emotional responses to questions. And the interviewer can adapt to respondent differences, clarifying or probing beneath questions. The disadvantages are equally obvious: They are time-consuming, usually resulting in a small sampling, and they may be more difficult to statistically quantify, due to variables in the interviewer/interviewee interaction.

Computer-assisted telephone interviews (CATI). While there are many who object to telemarketing as a research instrument, it remains one of the most cost-efficient methods research practitioners have of obtaining information. We routinely conduct CATI surveys for a variety of our B2B clients. We use an outsource service that sets up our questionnaires in an Excel spreadsheet, into which callers record answers directly on their computers. The computer facilitates not only data entry of responses, but also compilation and analysis.

Questionnaire Design

The primary function of the questionnaire is to translate the objective of the research into specific questions for each customer segment. It also should be standardized so respondents are reacting to identical stimuli. Its wording and question flow should eliminate bias and keep respondents motivated throughout the questioning. And its format should help speed the process of data analysis.

Eliminating unclear and biased wording is one of the most difficult challenges faced when developing a questionnaire. Certain words may hold powerful unintended associations for the respondent, so care must be taken to avoid loaded or vague wording, such as all/always, any/anybody, bad/best, ever/every/everybody, fair/few, more/less, most/much, never/nobody/none, saw/see/seen, and where. The key is specificity. If you use these words, put them a specific context; e.g., "In 2001, were your expenditures in sheetfed printing services higher or lower than in 2002?" The goal is to design questions that will be interpreted the same way by all respondents.

Questions also need to use vocabulary that is well understood by all respondents. In fact, we often will begin a session with terminology clarification. For example, all customers may not understand the term sheetfed printing. They may know that they use your services, but some may not be able to identify the equipment you use.

Questions also need to be grammatically concise and follow a logical order. Long questions introduce too many conditions and variables, which can be confusing to the respondent. A good guideline for question ordering is to follow an objective-by-objective line of questioning. Begin with screening questions, such as "Have you purchased printing in the past year?" and then lead into warm-up questions, like "How many times have you purchased printing in the last year?" Initial questioning should reassure the interviewee that the survey is easy and will be fast to complete.

When you move into the major section of questioning, notify respondents of the transition with statements like "Now, I'd like to ask you a few specific questions about your print purchases," which helps mentally prepare for the change. By this time, respondents are generally committed to completing the survey. This raises another important point: At the outset of the survey, notify respondents of the approximate length of the survey. Ask several people to take the survey, so your estimate is realistic. Giving this information up front helps respondents determine if they're able to complete the survey. If they cannot, ask for a time when they will be available.

While there are many other "dos and don'ts in designing questionnaires, the key factors to keep in mind are: Know your objectives, have a thorough understanding of the customers you're interviewing, word questions to be concise, and frame questions in a logical sequence.

In our next column, we'll discuss focus groups and their role in primary research for qualitative information.


Charlotte Mills Seligman is president of Traversant Marketing Communications. The firm specializes in planning and executing integrated marketing programs for printing and allied graphic arts companies, with nearly two decades of expertise in the industry. Previous columns and issues of the company's Ti Monthly e-newsletter are posted on http://www.traversant.com. Inquiries should be directed to (415) 357-2929 or charlotte @traversant.com.

© 2002 Traversant, Inc. All rights reserved.

May 20, 2002
Print & Graphics
Column #38, 5/02
Printing Journal
Column #38, 5/02
Research Surveys
By Charlotte Mills Seligman

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