In the arena of small business, information is king — and queen. There are lots of ways you can keep yourself well informed. From subscribing to trade journals to hiring mystery shoppers willing to scope out the competition, there’s no shortage of strategies you can employ.

One of the most effective ways to get an end user’s perspective on your products and practices is to ask. It’s simple. Go to the source — your customers.

Improve Your Small Business Using Customer Feedback

Customers know your products and can give you the down-and-dirty about what it feels like to deal with your company. Engaging customers in an honest dialogue has powerful potential. It can:

  • Reveal the hits and misses in your marketing efforts
  • Help you gain intelligence about the competition
  • Test the impact of planned changes
  • Provide invaluable demographic specifics
  • Encourage you to price your products more competitively

There are right and wrong ways to go about eliciting customer responses, though. Getting customers to open up can take some creativity. You may have included a comment card with your products before, only to discover that few buyers respond and those who do are usually dissatisfied with something.

Even if you’ve had lackluster results in the past, surveys and comment cards can still be valuable tools. You need the right approach, though. Offering an incentive for responding to a printed, online or call survey can be a good way to get more participation. Be careful not to make the carrot, like a raffle for a flat screen television, so attractive that people will bend the truth in order to participate. Another option is to maintain a lively online presence that encourages comments and a healthy exchange of ideas.

Tips for Creating Effective Surveys

These guidelines will help you improve the number and quality of responses to your next survey:

Be specific. You may want lots of information, but control the urge to ask too many questions or make your questions too broad. Use a scalpel instead of a scythe.

Get responses as soon as possible after a sale, sales call or customer service interaction. The fresher the information is, the more on-target it’s likely to be.

Use a multiple choice format. Making it easy for customers to respond is the goal. Put a lot of thought into the multiple choice replies you select, and keep it to three or four options total. Avoid choices that are vague or overlap. They confuse responders and don’t provide the clarity you’re looking for.

Make it short and sweet. Very few responders will feel cheerful about answering 25 questions. Instead, ask five to ten. Stay on point throughout, and be clear. If you can, throw in a little humor.

Don’t jump to conclusions. Devote yourself to a longer program involving multiple surveys instead of a short blitz. The more data you have at your disposal, the more valuable it will be. Data accumulated over a period of time is more likely to reveal interesting, actionable patterns. Twenty responses won’t tell you much. Wait until you have at least five times that to begin evaluating the results.

Keep phone surveys personable. Invest your pennies in choosing the best interviewer you can find. Avoid computer generated phone surveys. They irritate some people and alienate the rest. Be gracious and grateful. An unhappy customer who’s ready to give you an earful about the ways you’ve failed him may be a blessing in disguise. Make sure survey takers understand that any feedback is good feedback. No one ever lost a customer by being faultlessly polite.

Review your call or mail list. Calling to survey a past customer who’s currently in litigation with your company is a gaffe you really don’t want to make. Review all call and mailing lists carefully before implementing your survey program.

Track your results. Invest in database or customer management software to keep track of survey results. If you’ve been consistent and savvy in gathering information, you’ll be able to use it in many areas: manufacturing, quality control, document production, packaging, shipping and receiving, customer service and sales.

Combine your efforts. Broaden your horizons by finding creative new ways to get customers to speak freely. Begin a dialogue on your website by starting a blog. Maintain a presence on social networks, and elicit comments. Include your website address at the bottom of your receipts, and invite customers to visit you online. Post a survey taker outside your retail shop periodically, and have him query people leaving the store.

When you’re putting together your marketing and customer service budgets for next year, don’t forget to plan for a few survey campaigns. If you have a website (and if you don’t, you should), there are a number of survey tools that you can use absolutely free. Surveys and comments can be formal or casual. They will help you discover some good, some not-so-good and many important things about your small business.