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The good, and bad, of customer surveys

I conduct a lot of customer research. It is at the heart of most of my projects. And surveys are part of the research design for more than half of these studies.

I was reflecting recently with a colleague in media on what we had learned over the years about customers, and the conversation turned to the advantages and limitations of customer surveys.

Customer surveys can be powerful tools when used in the right context, and when designed rigorously from the outset. They offer businesses a window into their customers' minds, creating opportunities for improved products and services, and uncovering new business opportunities.

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Likewise, when applied in inappropriate situations or put together poorly, surveys can be weak data collectors and potentially misleading.

Specifically, there are three problem areas where customer surveys are limited for gathering meaningful data.

1. Self-reporting of reasons for past behaviour

2. Predicting future behaviour

3. Determining why and how customers do what they do

Careful survey design, or alternative or non-traditional research approaches, must be employed to tackle these problem areas.

Self-reporting of reasons for past behaviour

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Surveys are solid tools for gathering facts, especially in the present (for instance, how many times a month do you shop at…?) or in general (for instance, which colour of car do you most prefer?).

Behaviours – particularly past behaviours – are much more difficult to accurately measure via surveys though, because people will later rationalize irrational decision- making.

We did some work in the chocolate milk industry a couple of years ago and employed in-field observation and intercepts at convenience and grocery stores for data- gathering. We would ask consumers why they chose the carton or bottle they selected a few seconds after the customer had pulled it from the cooler.

A number of consumers would say something like "I picked the one with the latest freshness date," and we'd counter with "no you didn't, you just reached in and grabbed the one closest to the front." Only after we intercepted would consumers say "Oh, you're right, I guess I liked the package" or "I was in a real rush."

The point is that consumers don't lie, but their brains do want to put order and process around decisions where the intent and decision drivers were different – and so asking similar questions on surveys can lead to bad data and inaccurate interpretations. In this case, non-traditional qualitative research can yield better results.

Next: Predicting future behaviour, and determining why and how customers do what they do

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Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, is a partner at Satov Consultants – a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy and operations strategy. Mark's focus areas inside the customer strategy practice include consumer insights, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. He is a regular speaker and media contributor on topics ranging from marketing to strategy, in telecom, retail and other sectors. Mark is known as much for his penchant for loud socks and a healthy NFL football obsession as he is for his commitment to Ivey and recent Ivey grads. He currently serves as chair of the Ivey Alumni Association board of directors. Mark lives with his wife Charlotte and their bulldog McDuff in Toronto.

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About the Author
Marketing & Growth Columnist

Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, is a partner at Satov Consultants - a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy, operations and strategy implementation. Mark's focus areas inside the Customer Strategy practice include consumer insights, pricing, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. More

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