What do your customers really think?

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series onthe importance of market research.

Whether you want to learn how satisfied your existing customersare with your product, are thinking about launching a whole new lineor are developing a business plan, conducting market research is animportant step you should not skip.

Simply put, market research refers to the efforts to identify andunderstand consumer needs and preferences. Although the concept issimple, many of us are overwhelmed by the prospect of conductingmarket research.

As busy professionals with urgent demands on our time, marketresearch may seem like one of those “nice to do” projects that we’llget to when things quiet down, when we have more money in the budget,or when we hire that new marketing manager.

Marketing research may be thought of as too academic for thebusiness world, too complex (since it involves some statistics) ortoo expensive to conduct.

To make matters worse, it may yield feedback, perhaps negative,that will require our attention and subsequent action. In otherwords, the prospect of conducting market research can beintimidating.

But the gains realized from seeking out information about thepreferences of customers and/or potential customers outweigh any ofthe factors that might be holding you back.

Market research is the key to setting realistic goals andobjectives for the growth and profitability of your business, as wellas organizing day-to-day operations and determining employeecompensation.

Consumer feedback can confirm that your company is doing certainthings well or point out where there is room for improvement. It canbring the unintended consequences of a new policy or procedure tolight and provide you with the quantitative data essential fordeciding how and where to allocate your company’s resources.

While market research is an integral part of any new businessstart-up, this article assumes you are already in business.

So what do you want to know from your customers?

* Of course you want to know how satisfied they are with theproducts and services you sell, as well as the sales and supportingservice your company provides. You will also want to know if you areretaining customers. Do they buy from you more than once? Are theyloyal?

* Are they loyal enough to refer others to your company? Sinceword-of-mouth is your most effective and least expensive method ofmarketing, referrals are key.

* Do your customers perceive value from your company? Value is howcustomers judge the delicate balance between quality and price. Theywant the highest quality possible for the price paid. Asking forfeedback about price alone won’t tell you much. If your price is low,but so is the quality of what you sell, chances are good yourcustomers perceive little value.

* Asking for feedback about how you rate relative to similarcompanies is important. You may have highly-satisfied customers, butyou may be losing some of your market share at the same time. Yourcompetitors may be offering better value.

There are several ways to collect feedback from customers andprospective customers: surveys, including phone, mail and Internetsurveys; focus groups among customers and non-customers; customerinterviews and secret shoppers.

Regardless of the methods used, your most important objectives areto obtain actionable information and then be ready to use that datato make changes or improvements.

Next month’s column will be devoted to an overview of each methodand resources available to you.

Kimberlee Roth is co-owner of The Consulting Network in TraverseCity, which provides education, training and management consultingfor health care professionals.tcn@qualityce.com; 922-7165.BIZNEWS