If youre working to assess levels of customer awareness interest or satisfaction customer opinion surveys are a good tool for the task

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You can conduct short surveys in-person at the point of purchase, or you can collect more extensive information through questionnaires delivered via phone, mail, or e-mail.

For surveys that involve more than a few questions, most companies seek professional assistance as they develop their survey instruments. The tricky part is that although you want to collect information about your offerings in order to improve them, you don't want to fan any fires of discontent by spotlighting shortcomings or by unduly imposing on your customers' time. You also don't want to lead your customers to the answers you're seeking; if you do, the research is basically good for

nothing. To balance your dueling desires for customer input and customer satisfaction, follow this advice:

• Keep your survey short enough that it only takes a few minutes of your customers' time. The exception is when you're dealing with highly loyal customers who are committed to your business and willing to invest heavily of their time.

• Avoid general questions in favor of comparative questions that are more likely to elicit thoughtful and accurate responses. For example, avoid a general question like, "On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being best, how do you rate our service?" Instead, ask, "On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being best, how satisfied were you with the service you received during your last visit to our business?"

• Ask questions that help you understand how your customer relates to your product. For example, you may ask, "On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being highest, how closely did our product live up to your expectations?"

• Ask questions that reveal how you stack up against competitors in customers' minds. For example, you may ask, "On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being highest, how convenient is our location compared to the location of other businesses where you can purchase similar products or services?

^ To see how your customers react to a product or marketing idea, or to pinpoint subtleties in what they think or feel, consider chatting one-to-one in personal or phone interviews. When conducting interviews, keep the following points in mind:

• You waste everyone's time if you aren't truly open to any customer response to your idea. If you (or those in a leadership position) already know what you're going to do and are simply seeking validation, save your time and money.

• You may not be the best person to conduct the interview.

Generally, people are nice and polite and don't want to burst bubbles or hurt feelings. If a third-party professional researcher asks for your customers' opinions, the answers may be 180 degrees different (and more accurate) than what customers would admit to the owner of the idea.

Table 4-1 can help you determine when to seek professional help with your research program and when you can just go it alone.

Just listen! Using focus groups

Focus groups, by definition, are left to the professionals. A focus group is a gathering of customers or prospective customers who share input about a product or marketing idea with a professional moderator who guides the conversation, prompts input, and manages the discussion so it isn't dominated by one person or opinion. The only reason you should hold a focus group is if you want to weigh opinions, reactions, and risks before proceeding with an important product or marketing decision. Before holding a focus group, be clear about the information or idea you're presenting to the group and the kind of impressions you're seeking to collect before the session ends.

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