Do-It-Yourself Marketing Research Understanding Your CustomersYou can do some simple yet powerful market research by taking advantage of free websites and free or low-cost tools such as online polls — not to mention that old-time technology, talking to people and watching what they do. Sure, you won’t get down to the precise level that professional market researchers can offer but you can get good data to help you make some decisions about new directions for your business. And if you do hire a pro, you’ll be a much smarter customer for coming in with the right questions to ask.

Step 1 is to build a customer database to track purchase history and preferences; your point-of-sale system, restaurant reservation system or customer relationship management software can provide the tools you need. Sometimes, a simple spreadsheet will do. Some key bits of data to capture are an email address and a home address (so you have an idea of the size of your local business area or “trade area”) If customers are reluctant to give a specific address, a ZIP code might be enough. Offering discounts or a chance to win a prize can induce customers to give out personal information.

Now that you know who and where they are, step 2 is to ask: What do they want?

Services such as Constant Contact, Survey Monkey or Zoomerang will provide free or low-cost surveys for your website or to distribute via email, Facebook or Twitter. You can also hand out customer comment cards at your place of business. Again, offering a coupon or other freebie will increase the number taking the survey.

Ask open-ended questions about your customers’ wants and needs or try out ideas for new services or product features. One measurement you can track over time is your “net promoter score.” Ask customers “On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to refer a friend or colleague to our business?” The nines and tens are your company’s “promoters,” while the zeroes through sixes are “detractors.” If 45% are promoters and 30% detractors, your net promoter score is 15. Any score over 15 puts you above average.

But be realistic. This isn’t scientific polling that hits a broad range of people (for that you will need to hire a market research professional). The customers most willing to answer questions will likely be your most satisfied customers.  And that’s OK; learning how to retain good customers is a good use of marketing research.  Once you’ve identified these helpful folks, ask whether they’d be willing to advise you in an ongoing way by email or through Facebook or maybe by going out to lunch.

Social media is a great way to conduct informal market research among your promoters. One restaurant regularly asks customers to choose a name for new sandwiches and a small maker of plush toys asks fans to pick designs to manufacture – all by polling on Facebook. Be sure to keep your Facebook fans feeling special by offering discounts or coupons in exchange for their help.

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