Learn what your customers think.

Consider these statements – offered as the key to success in a tough economy – that recently appeared in several noted business journals. “We talk often and directly with our customers.” “Our strategy is the same as it has always been.” “We stay focused on our customers.” These words are as applicable to drilling contractors as they are to any business.

The business world today is customer-centric. The customer is king and has access to products and information 24/7. If a store doesn’t have what the buyer wants on hand, the store will get it – overnight. The same people who are buying goods and services in this new economy are purchasing services from you. Ask any construction professional, from a foreman to the CEO, and he or she will tell you that customers are more demanding today. How then do you know what they are expecting from you, and how will those expectations change in the future? How do you know how satisfied they are with your performance? Ask them.

It may seem obvious, but the best way to find out what your customers are really thinking is by asking them. Before you dismiss the rest of this article because of the simplicity of that statement, answer a few questions: When is the last time you systematically and formally asked your customers how you were doing? More importantly, when is the last time you asked prospective customers about their opinion of your company? What are the key business drivers and buying practices of your customers? The answers you get may surprise you. But more importantly, the answers you get will enable you to refine your offerings or revamp your processes to get the type of work you want and deliver it in the way the customer expects.

In this article, we will consider customer surveys. We will look at the various types, the methods of getting the data and what you do with the data once you get it.

Survey Types

While there are a number of things you want to ask your customers and prospects, the majority of surveys revolve around customer satisfaction, company image and reputation, customer buying practices and market trends. There are two things to remember when you are crafting a customer survey. First, what decisions do you want to be able to make based the information you receive? Second, people are deluged with information, including surveys. So you don’t have a lot of time. You have to ask the really important questions. The last thing a customer wants to do is spend an hour on the phone talking about your company.

In the hands of a trained interviewer, a respondent will often share in-depth - volunteering as much time as necessary. The key is to make the person feel that their input is valued. This underscores the importance of knowledgeable interviewers.

Customer satisfaction surveys ask current and past customers what they think of your products and services. A typical question is: How satisfied are you with the ability of ABC Drilling to maintain communications? A follow-up question to this is: How do you define adequate communication? Follow-up questions are important because they offer you a true understanding of your customer. A good interviewer will know when there is more information to be uncovered in an interview. The survey process involves more than just getting a certain number of people to fill out a form.

Image surveys ask current, past and prospective customers what they think of your firm. They also are a great way to capture information about the competition. A typical question is: In the area of water well drilling services, which are the top three contractors in your market?

Buying practices surveys ask past, current and prospective customers about the decision-making process they employ to procure construction solutions. A typical question is: Besides price, what is most important to you when selecting a contractor?

Survey Methods

These survey methods ask a respondent to complete some type of form. While these are easier and less costly to administer than the methods we will discuss next, they have two notable drawbacks. First, there is no opportunity to clarify through questioning what a respondent answered. Also, response rates are low. Response rates over 10 percent are unusual. This means that a higher number of prospects must be identified to get any type of statistical significance and reliability for the survey. The majority of contractors have poor marketing databases, and many are unable to provide current contact information for an adequate number of prospects.

Personal interviews may be conducted over the phone or face-to-face. The interviewer follows a standard survey form, but the responses are more in-depth than those gathered through any other survey method. This method requires more time and money, but the quality of the output justifies the investment. The variable in this method is the interviewer.

The marketing representative of your firm may also conduct the survey. This is a cost-effective way to use the resources already available at your organization. The drawbacks are that this person will have commitments in addition to your survey. Additionally, this person may not be trained in conducting market research or be the best suited to conduct it. Finally, it is difficult to overcome any existing corporate or personal bias.

Look to academics. Universities often are well versed in conducting market research. They also will be unbiased and have access to secondary data sources. Another positive is that they often are willing to do the work at a low cost or ask their students to conduct it for free as part of a research project. However, time allocation also is a concern for this survey method – this is not a primary task. Lack of industry experience and insight also is a drawback. A lessened ability to compare results to national trends is another negative to consider when using a university professor or intern for your survey.

There are many local, regional and national firms that conduct market research. They offer a focused expertise of conducting market research, but they may be costly. Again, a lack of industry experience may yield weak results. These firms may lack the insight to ask good follow-up questions. The interviewer with the advantage of industry experience will ask respondents probing questions, yielding more complete answers that in-turn enable you to make sound business decisions.

Perhaps the most effective method for surveys is the national market research firm that knows your industry. While the service is costly, the advantages outweigh the drawbacks. These research firms are capable and organized to conduct primary research and also have access to secondary research. They can access other industry information and trends to yield a better interpretation of your raw data. These interviewers are trained, unbiased and able to objectively research and analyze the data. A lack of intimate knowledge of your firm can be easily overcome.

Survey Data

Survey respondents should be thanked for their valuable time. This can be done through a letter or by sending a small token of appreciation. Next, follow up with a face-to-face meeting to discuss the results of the survey and what you learned as it relates to that customer. While this will not be possible in all instances, it sends a very strong message about the value you place on their input. Just taking the time to say “thanks” is solid marketing. Acting on the information is even better.

Act On It

It is important to act on the information gained in the survey. Otherwise, it will be a waste of time and energy. Customers will expect you to make the changes you agreed to do. Once you promise something to the customer, you must deliver.

The results of the survey should be shared with your company. Whether the results are good or bad overall, this is an important step. In some cases, the information will be a validation of what you are doing. In other cases, it will be a call to action. Either way, share the information with your people. They want to know.

Use It In Marketing

“Ninety-eight percent of our clients rate our service as superior.” This is a claim made by many, but one that few can prove. A recent survey conducted for a mid-sized contractor indicated that the firm held a solid position on the bottom-rung of the top tier of contractors in the market. This is both good news and bad news. It was a positive sign that the company was perceived to be in the top tier. However, the survey revealed that they had some work to do to reach “best of class” status. The company learned that their marketing strategy was geared inappropriately – they thought they were competing in the second tier – and made some key changes to realize their goal.

No doubt, we live in the age of the consumer. The single best way to ensure that you are delivering what the customers expect is to ask them. Customer surveys can vary widely, but the resulting information is invaluable. Who is better suited to tell you what to do than the people who might buy from you? Who is better suited to tell you how you are doing than the people who currently are buying from you? The customer survey yields valuable business intelligence that enables your company to make meaningful change in your marketing efforts.