Just after the Labor Day holiday, every year, businesses begin their planning processes for the coming year. This is typically the time when internal planning teams are created, planning deadlines are set, and marketing goals and targets are established. But what types of market research data are you planning to use in your planning process? And how are you going to get it in the first place? Now is the time to plan exactly where your customer research will come from – and how to use it most effectively in supporting your strategic planning process.
In today’s upended business environment, even the most skeptical services managers will agree that “the customer is always right”. Still, there are too many organizations that do not – or will not – go directly to their customers for input and feedback. A reporter once asked the legendary bank robber, Willie Sutton, why he robbed so many banks. Without hesitation, he replied, “Because that’s where all the money is!”. While Willie’s business practices may not have been either legally or politically correct, there was one thing that you had to give him – he knew where to go to get what he needed. In the services industry, the place where we need to go, to get the information we need – is the customer.
Some managers argue that internal call activity data, information and reports are all they need to measure and track their organization’s performance over time, and identify unmet user needs and requirements. They claim that these internal data are more objective, accurate and statistically valid than anything market research may derive from conducting customer needs, requirements and satisfaction surveys.
Objectively speaking, they may be right! However, the customers your organization supports are typically not objective in the way in which they assess and evaluate your performance and, in most cases, the internal data you are able to derive do not adequately reflect their true perceptions of satisfaction – let alone loyalty – with respect to your organization’s performance. It is primarily for these reasons that we believe the only true source of customer-focused research comes from the customers themselves – and that the most effective means to collect this information is to interact with them through a customer survey.
Customer Survey Design Components
Customer surveys, in and of themselves, are not new. They have been used for decades. What is new, however, are the ways in which the data are collected, processed, analyzed and applied, as well as how the information is ultimately integrated into the strategic planning process.
Traditional modes of conducting customer surveys via mail, telephone and personal interface have now been essentially replaced by e-mail or Web-based surveys. Newer data processing tools, coupled with the increased speed of collecting and processing data through electronic means, have also made it much easier – and quicker – to analyze the collected survey data. What used to take months to design, execute, process and analyze now only takes weeks.
Still, one thing remains unchanged over time; in order for any customer survey program to be effective – especially with respect to supporting the strategic planning process – it must address each of the following key survey design areas:
- Business Objectives, such as “Why is the research being conducted?” and “How is it going to be used?”
- Information Objectives, such as “What information do we need to support our business objectives?” and “How can we most effectively obtain it?”
- Organizational Structure, such as “What areas do we want to measure?” and “Which areas require separate, or more detailed, analysis?”
- Customers and Customer Groups, such as “Which customers should be surveyed?” and “Who within each customer organization represents our most appropriate contact?”
- Competitive Environment, such as “Who are our direct and indirect competitors?” and “Who should we be benchmarking against?”
- Operational Information, such as “How do we obtain current lists of customers?” and “How can they best be reached?”
- Statistical Requirements, such as “What is an acceptable margin of error?” and “How can the data be most effectively reported?”
- Previously Conducted Research, such as “What have we learned from our past studies?” and “How can we integrate what we’ve learned into the new survey process?”
- Internal Measures, such as “What mechanisms are currently being used to measure and track performance?” and “How can we reconcile the external findings with our internal data?”
- Customer Relationship Management (CRM), such as “How can the customer survey program support our overall CRM initiatives?” and “How can the results best be communicated internally and externally?”
- Tracking and Monitoring, such as “How should we track our customer needs, requirements and satisfaction performance over time?” and “How frequently will we need to update our information base?”
- Timing and Scheduling, such as “When will the baseline results be required?” and “How quickly can the survey be designed, executed, processed and analyzed?”
A Customer Satisfaction Measurement and Tracking program can successfully address all of the areas as described above, as well as provide management with a comprehensive analysis of the baseline, or “benchmark”, customer needs and requirements/satisfaction survey results, and the analysis of trend data that could be used to identify key patterns of change, or movement, in customers’ perceptions of service performance over time. These would include, but not be limited to:
- Detailed analyses of the overall survey findings that establish baseline needs/satisfaction levels, and track trends and shifts in customer needs and satisfaction from period-to-period;
- The identification of specific areas requiring improvement and/or enhancement;
- Generation of executive-level summary reports, detailed survey data and regular (e.g., quarterly) tracking reports;
- Assessments of the strategic implications for the organization based on the analyses of the overall survey findings; and
- Development of specific recommendations for improving the existing services portfolio and corresponding levels of satisfaction.
Survey Research Applications and Uses
The applications and uses of the findings from a customer satisfaction measurement and tracking program of this type would be multifold:
- The organization could acquire new and useful input and feedback directly from its customers regarding their perceptions of the value, need and levels of satisfaction associated with the acquisition and use of the company’s products and services.
- The survey results could then be used to monitor trends in both company performance and customer satisfaction over time. This information could contribute directly to the ongoing improvement of the company’s products and services as part of an overall marketing plan, and could ultimately lead to the development of new, or modified, products, services and support features designed to meet the total needs of the customer base.
- The results of the survey could also be used as a marketing tool for promoting the company’s various product and service lines through a number of means including:
- The creation of an executive summary, or “white paper” report, based on the general survey results, for distribution to targeted customers and prospects via mail, e-mail, insertion in corporate literature folders, or at industry trade shows;
- Development of a series of promotional and public relations-oriented news releases targeted to key business publications and trade papers; and
- Publication of a “genericized” summary of the survey results in an appropriate industry trade journal or magazine that serves the organization’s general customer/market base.
- The results of the survey analysis, as well as a sampling of selected verbatim quotes and comments, could also be incorporated directly into the company’s advertising and promotional programs, corporate brochures, testimonials, newsletters, etc.
Any business that has put off conducting a customer needs and requirements assessment, or customer satisfaction survey, for a year or more allegedly to “save money” or wait for the “right time” may now be experiencing a dramatic decline in customer satisfaction. since they haven’t really tracked it over time, or implemented any corrective actions before things began to deteriorate.
However, by the time an organization typically realizes that there has been a significant downturn in customer satisfaction, it may take another year or more before it can effectively reverse the trend (i.e., through problem recognition, identification, correction, and tracking). That may seem like a long time, unless you consider that if they didn’t forego their customer survey tracking in the previous year, it could have corrected all of the problems by now!
Measuring customer satisfaction is a necessary process for all businesses, and not one to be taken for granted. Simply because your customers appear to be satisfied with you today does not ensure that they will remain satisfied forever. Why not let them tell you exactly what makes them “tick”, and what “ticks” them off? You can only do that if you take the effort to design, execute, analyze and track your customers needs, requirements and corresponding levels of customer satisfaction, through an orchestrated process, on an ongoing and focused basis. If you haven’t already, now is the time to make customer-focused research a regular part of your ongoing strategic planning process. The time to start is now!