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What do your customers really think?

Reprinted from News-To-Use, Vol.6, No.2.
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Have you talked- I mean really talked- to your customers lately? Have you asked them what they like best about you, what they dislike? How they feel about your quality, your pricing, your delivery and service? Have you asked what they'd like to find in a product like yours but can't? Have you asked if anybody has a new application for your product you hadn't thought of before?

If you thought market research was only for consumer products, you're missing a great opportunity to

• Better position your company against competitors
• Make substantive improvements in product and service
• Develop new and needed products and services
• Keep customers happier- and longer
• Improve the effectiveness of your advertising

Fail to keep in touch with customers and you may run the risk of losing them. Dissatisfied customers often vote with their feet, and rarely tell you why they left.

Surprisingly, a lot of basic market research is neither difficult nor expensive. Here are two good ways to get started.

Study the publications your customers read for information on products and services similar to yours. Clip competitive ads and scrutinize how they present themselves.

Also, check into "secondary research" sources such as published articles, computer databases and directories available at your local library. A wealth of information can be found in sources like the Statistical Abstract of the United States published by the Census Bureau, and the Market Share Reporter.

With a foundation of information from secondary sources, you're ready to learn some specific information with your own "primary" research. How you approach this will depend on the goals you set for yourself in the beginning- what do you want to learn, and what will you do with the information once you get it? When you know the answers to those questions, here are some effective ways to learn from the people who buy- or might buy- your product.

• Surveys. Especially if you're an advertiser, the trade journals in your market are eager to help you with simple surveys. At little or no cost, they will provide you with the names and addresses of a sample of their subscription list, help you formulate a survey and send it out. You can also survey your own customer lists (a blind survey will yield more accurate responses) or purchase a commercial mailing list. Unless you hire an outside source to handle this for you, tabulating the responses into a meaningful chart or graph can be time consuming.

• Advisory groups. Many companies can put together a group of key customers or industry insiders to use as a sounding board for new or planned changes in products and services. This method works best if you make an effort to import some status -and perks- to the people you ask to participate.

• Comment cards. These are not just for restaurants. Often, if you include a card with the products you ship- even industrial products- and ask for an honest opinion, you'll be surprised at the responses you get. A few tips: ask open-ended questions ("what do you like best about the product?"); make the form easy to complete and mail; offer incentives for a completed card (perhaps a discount on the next purchase); have the card addressed to someone in charge at your company- the president would do nicely.

• Focus groups. This is a technique common in consumer research, and underutilized in business-to-business marketing. To be effective, you'll need to focus on just one or two topics, then hire a firm specializing in focus groups to put together a panel of potential customers, provide a skilled moderator, record at least two different sessions, and synthesize the learned information.

• In-depth interviews. Here again, it's wise to hire a specialist for one-on-one conversations- by phone or in person- with a number of your customers or prospects. In-depth interviews allow you to explore more complex issues than focus groups, but should still be scripted to keep the conversation from wandering.

You want more loyal and repeat customers? A constantly improving product line? A rising share of your market? Healthier sales? The key is in asking questions- and listening to the answers.

Ripley-Woodbury Marketing Communications
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