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Companies save time, money with online surveys

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If you want to know how your customers feel about your product or service, one good way to find out is to ask. And one of the simplest, most cost-effective methods is an online survey.

Three years ago, market research company Market Probe Inc. did 100% of its asking over the phone. The Milwaukee company called its customers’ customers and asked their opinions about products, service and the competition.

Today, although 75% of the company’s customer interviews still are done via phone, a growing number are conducted online. As a result, Market Probe’s customers save time and money and have instant access to business metrics, said Kurt Pflughoeft, the company’s director of information technology.

"The more efficiently you collect data, the more effective it is," he said. "As soon as a customer fills out an online survey, that information can be transferred immediately."

The savings and speed of the online offering are so alluring that more than 15% of the company’s customers choose that option.

Online surveys may be conducted by e-mail, via Web sites or some combination of both. Some companies use software programs that are installed in-house and generate survey invitations from the customer database. Others use Web pop-up invitations that are activated when a Web site visitor views a particular page or exhibits a surfing pattern. Still others contract with outside service providers who send out survey invitations, host Web surveys and cull results. Some surveys are rudimentary, asking respondents to pick response A, B or C; other surveys enable customers to give opinions and answer questions in prose.

Survey costs vary from several hundred dollars to thousands of dollars, depending on the number of customers being surveyed, whether or not the software is installed in-house, and how much coaching a company needs to create a survey. Online survey software and services are cost effective, according to industry experts.

"With shipping and printing and data entry costs [of offline surveys], online surveys pay for themselves immediately," said Sam Goodner, CEO of Inquisite, a division of Catapult Systems Corp. that provides a Web survey system.

Goodner said results tend to be more robust since the anonymity of the Internet prompts more verbose answers. "It’s easier to type than it is to write something down or express it over the phone," he said.

One benefit of an online survey is its ability to help a company design or change a marketing or sales program in a short period of time, said Monica David, VP-professional services with CustomerSat, an online survey provider. CustomerSat analyzes its surveys and provides recommendations for actions based on results.

"We look at a customer’s CRM database, which is our survey list source. We look at which products [the company] uses, how long they’ve been a customer, what region the company is in, [and] what industry. We use that behavioral information to design the survey and interpret the results," David said.

Giving responses substance

Tying survey results to other company metrics is key, analysts say, because it takes the responses out of a vacuum and gives them substance.

"You could complete a study and see that 27% of your customers are high-risk customers that you’re at risk of losing. The knee-jerk reaction might be, ‘How do I save these customers?’ But if you combine your survey results with financial metrics, you find out how many of those customers are actually profitable," said Pat Gibbons, senior VP-marketing and business development for Walker Information, a market research firm. "I’ll bet after you look at the total picture, you won’t even want to keep some of those customers."

Unfortunately, merging disparate data and systems together isn’t as easy as it sounds. Most companies are still in the nascent phases of integration, analysts point out.

But some savvy businesses are making good use of survey information. For example, online employment service Monster.com sent out 30,000 customer surveys last year, and it integrated the results with the company’s CRM system. "The survey results impact policy, process, product development and marketing efforts," said Chip Henry, Monster.com’s VP-voice of the customer. "There’s nothing in the company that isn’t touched as a result of the surveys."

However, there are some pitfalls to online surveys. Although it might seem like the proliferation of e-mail and interactive Web sites would make it easier to get customers to fill out online forms, it hasn’t. The same ubiquity that’s turned e-mail into a household word has also turned it into fertile ground for spammers.

Simply put, even if an e-mail comes from a trusted source, it’s unlikely customers will click on a link to take them to a Web site. And that’s if the e-mail actually gets through, said Joanie Rufo, research director of AMR Research. Increasingly, marketing messages—even those that are opt-in—are blocked at the mail server level.

Market Probe’s Pflughoeft said his company is struggling with this problem right now. "It’s getting more and more difficult to deliver e-mail to people," he said. "In the past year, we’ve seen an increase in the use of spam filters. We’re starting to see a fair number of rejected e-mails coming back."

Also, e-mail recipients aren’t responding to the same giveaway offers they were a few years ago. Now, instead of incentives such as free t-shirts and coffee mugs, recipients want more concrete rewards, such as product or service discounts. Still, most experts agree that b-to-b customers, who are invested in their relationships with partners and suppliers, will fill out surveys frequently.

But even more important, Inquisite’s Goodner said, customers are thrilled when they see that an opinion they provided turns into a new action or marketing program.

"If you do a survey several years in a row but you don’t listen to what the customers are saying, they’re not going to answer your surveys any more," Goodner said. "But if you listen to them and publish the results so they can see what their peers say, then set new goals based on your survey results, your customers are going to love you."

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