I’ve been asked by friends, family and former students who own small businesses for help doing research. My advice ranges from keep it very simple to don’t attempt it at all. That may seem strange coming from someone whose livelihood depends on research, but sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to spend the money and expend the effort.
There are three different types of research I generally recommend, but for now I’m going to focus on customer survey research.
Surveys are what I’m asked about most often since this is my main line of work, but it’s also the least likely to yield meaningful results for a small business. You need a few hundred responses to have something meaningful and you would need to send the survey to a few thousand people to get that many. That’s probably more customers than the average small business has.
Another problem is how to contact them. A small business may or may not have a customer email list. If your business does have a large list (a few thousand) then you can try an email survey, less than that and the results will be hit or miss. But there’s a way around a small email list. Ask your customers to complete the survey right there on an iPad. Be sure to let them know the results will be anonymous. If they don’t want to complete the survey right then, offer them a card with a link to the survey or give them a survey on a self-addressed, stamped postcard.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Keep your questions short and focused on one thing.
- Limit your survey to 10 questions.
- Try to avoid questions that can be answered by yes or no. It’s better to have a scale, for example, Extremely Satisfied, Somewhat Satisfied, Neither Satisfied or Dissatisfied, Somewhat Dissatisfied and Very Dissatisfied.
- Ask one open-ended question that allows them to say whatever they want, for example, “Was there anything about your experience today that you would like to tell us about?” or even better, open yourself up to criticism, “What can we do to improve?” Give them two or three lines to write their answers. Most of the data you get from this question will not be very useful like, “Bob did a great job!” That’s nice to know, but not all that helpful. It’s those one or two answers that give you constructive criticism that you can use.
- Don’t expect your customers to know what they want or need. Henry Ford supposedly said, “If I asked people what they wanted they’d say a faster horse.” You can ask people for their opinion about things you’d like to try, like a new product or service, but don’t expect them to come up with the ideas for you.