Don’t Forget to Ask Your Customers

7 Mar

A version of this appeared on ClickZ.

It never ceases to amaze me how much time, energy and money companies spend trying to get inside their customers’ heads. Typically, it starts with a simple question, evolves into a complex theory, and ultimately becomes a full-blown research project with expanding budgets and corresponding scope creep.

How much easier, and cheaper, would it be to recall the admonishment used on kids so often: “All you had to do was ask.” Companies invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in their web sites. They spend untold sums getting people to use their sites. Then they spend money to get logging software and, presumably, pay someone to make sense of those logs.

Yet when there’s a question of customer attitudes, virtually no one thinks to ask the current users on the web site.

Well, that’s not exactly true. Traditional research companies are thinking about it, or to be precise, thinking about the profits. Inside Research, an industry newsletter, predicts companies will spend nearly $230 million in online research this year. Within two years they expect that to reach $1 billion.

All the big players are lining up with detailed online research protocols, proprietary systems and case studies. They’ll have a lot to tout. Online research can cost a tenth of what it would take to conduct a standard snail-mail survey and be turned around in weeks instead of months.

To be sure, full-blown online surveys have an important role to play. And they need the careful crafting that research firms provide. But that’s not the type of research I’m talking about.

There is a lower level of research that can often satisfy those informational cravings that companies have. Not sure if your customers will go for a purple widget? Ask them.

Put a quick one-question survey on the front page of your web site with three or four answers to pick from. You’ve seen these before. ESPNCNN and countless other media companies use them for non-scientific research such as, “Which of these players would you put in the hall of fame if you could vote?”

Results aside, just watching the response rate to the survey can tell you a lot. Are your users engaged enough with the site to take a few seconds to do the survey? What percentage of the traffic took the survey? Was there a difference based on time of day or service provider?

Without question, you don’t want to base major strategic shifts on the results. These people are not a cross-section of the audience you ultimately want to hit. But they are an active part of your market. And if something doesn’t work with them, odds are it won’t fare well in the broader market.

Similarly, listening to what these people have to say can expose trends and issues that bear exploration through more traditional means.

If you can identify your most loyal or profitable customers, consider creating online advisory groups. These can be as simple as a list server or a more advanced secure web site with bulletin boards.

Once you’ve got the group assembled, give them the latitude to critique anything you’ve done. Don’t feel threatened by their comments. These are the things your staff is either too scared to say or too immersed in the culture to recognize. Besides, the same loyalists will be the first to defend your honor if an outsider were to criticize the company.

Then there’s the unintended side effect from tools like these. Customers suddenly feel empowered. You aren’t just taking their money, but asking their opinion. All things being equal between two companies, I’d feel much more inclined to give my business to the one that listens to me. And, over time, I’d bear with the company through tough times because I’d feel like I had a stake in the turnaround.

Those are benefits that traditional research won’t provide. And it’s all there for the taking, if you’ll just ask.