How to Help Your Customers Teach You

Back when Middle English was just called “English,” Geoffrey Chaucer wrote “The Canterbury Tales.” One of those tales is told by a clerk, an Oxford student actually, who “gladly wolde… lerne and gladly teche.” (And he had yet to hear the Wife of Bath’s tale, from which I’m sure he learned a great deal.)

Teaching and learning go hand in hand, and we can learn enough from our customers’ passively tracked behavior to avoid learning the hard way — from a painful foot-in-mouth incident. The actions and reactions of the people being taught teach the teacher.

In the days of old, before 1995, marketers had little choice but to rely on faulty instructional material: anecdotal observation of customer behavior and studies whose very nature skewed the results and took months to compile. Now we (Modern English) marketing professionals have sophisticated software to help us learn as we teach our customers.

Besides following their cookie crumb trails as they wander around our sites, we can formally survey their preferences. Though the survey isn’t as “frictionless” (a word unknown to Chaucer) as spying on our customers’ every keystroke is, it does let them know that we care what they think. It gives them a sense of participation in our decision making.

Before I sound any more like Jerry Maguire, let’s get right into the software that assists us in helping our customers help us figure out what to sell them.

A Survey of Survey Software

Each player in this space offers slightly different features and advantages. You may want to use different ones for different strategies.

OpinionWare provides easy-to-use questionnaires you can post on your web site. Its analysis tools then compile data quickly. Its capability for e-casting the questionnaire forms through your opt-in newsletter subscribers is good for surveying online communities. Its clients include ZDNet, RealHome.com and Bernina (sewing machines). Software licenses for the company’s five products cost from $35,000 to $45,000.

New Art Technologies offers NA-Survey, do-it-yourself survey software that’s web and email based and server free. It lets you create, edit, generate, and package surveys with your choice of response scales. For emailed survey forms, the customer mails the form back to you, and the software’s automatic response capture system graphically tabulates results. NA-Survey costs $119 plus $11 shipping instead of a licensing fee.

Zoomerang’s survey service is free and allows you to email the survey to a mailing list and post it on your site. But setting up a survey is labor intensive. You start with a template from the more than 100 offered. The brain bender is actually writing the questions, with 11 different question types to choose from.

Do You Know Which Questions to Ask?

Sure, we’ve all answered multiple-choice questions, but have you ever tried to write good ones? Question architecture is like information architecture. Get a pro to do it, even if you have to do a bit of studying to become more professional yourself in this skill. But you’ll have that issue with any survey you develop in-house.

Survey question development is a science in itself. You’ve taken surveys or tests with questions you thought were stupid. You don’t want to subject your customers to that experience. The first thing (also the second and third things) to do with a survey is test the questions on trusted insiders — your employees, your mother-in-law (hey, you want criticism), your friends.

Chances are, the first (and maybe second and third) time around, you’re going to hear comments like these:

  • I don’t understand what this means.

  • These two choices of response seem to mean the same thing.
  • These two questions seem to ask the same thing. (Having questions that “cover” each other to reveal inconsistencies in customer attitude is a standard tactic. But you may want to make your survey simpler or more subtle than that so respondents can’t tell you’re crosschecking them.)

My humble suggestion: Use Zoomerang to train yourself in survey development. Create a real survey but something less risky than asking your entire customer base its opinion on a new product or service you’re contemplating. Maybe do an employee survey on some internal issues — cubicle resizing, the performance review process, or favorite perks. Read “Dilbert” — you’ll think of something.

Recess: If it’s later than 10:00 a.m., you need to take a break. Find just the right words for your next corporate communication. Or prepare for your next salary negotiation. If you need coaching, you know where to find me.

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