• Monday, July 22, 2024
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Surveys are no substitute for talking to customers

Customer Surveys

For many organizations, surveys qualify as “talking to the customer.” But do they really qualify as customer consultation? What can be done instead?

At the beginning of my public workshops on strategic planning I choose a convenience store as my business example, since everyone has been a customer of one, and ask what seems like a benign question: “How do you decide to shop at one convenience store versus another?” The responses come quickly, and they always yield the same six criteria: location, hours of operation, range of goods sold, store presentation, customer service and prices.

What my audience does not appreciate at the start is that it took a group of people to come up with all six factors. No one individual would have articulated the complete set. But how does this translate into gaining insights from customer interviews instead of surveys?

Consider a company I worked with recently that provides a range of civil engineering and planning services to clients nationwide. I’ll call it Command. In preparation for a strategic-planning exercise, which I was to facilitate, the CEO at Command asked me to interview a dozen of its key clients. If you’re like a lot of people, your initial response might be: “Twelve clients? The sample is too small. It’s not enough to tell you anything useful.”

But in conversations with clients,you’re after quality,not quantity.You want to get inside their minds. You want to get a feel for their needs, wants and pains. You can’t get that from a questionnaire.

The company’s management and board believed that Command would obtain a competitive edge through broadening its range of services. But this was not borne out by the customer interviews. Command was in the process of being restructured based on its false premise.

Clearly, there’s no way that traditional surveys could deliver this kind of deep strategic analysis. But what about the expense of conducting interviews with a large sample of customers? To get meaningful customer input, would you not need to conduct a great many?

The short answer is: You need enough interviews to get to the point at which you hear nothing new and material is being repeated. You can, it turns out, reach this point surprisingly quickly.

Written by Graham Kenny, managing director of Strategic Factors,a consultancy