Executives are often inundated with customer anecdotes and hearsay from sales reps. This feedback can be useful to a point but should not be used to make major decisions. All organizations must combat their internal assumptions with more objective customer surveys and qualitative research.
Distributors who regularly solicit their customers’ input via customer surveys gain important insights for decision-making. Customer surveys help distributors learn more about how their customers prefer to shop, buy and receive communication, as well as what distributor features and benefits are most important to them. This information can ultimately influence how they go to market.
Two misinformed fears keep distributors from gathering quality survey data from their customers:
- Fear 1: Customers will be annoyed by survey requests.
- Fear 2: Negative feedback may mean facing changes distributors are not ready to address.
Distributors who give into their survey anxieties are putting themselves at a major disadvantage. Your competitors aren’t afraid of stepping on toes to gather and act on data about your customers, so you can’t be either. Especially now, when field sales reps are more distanced from customers than ever, distributors must find a way to keep in touch.
Learn to design an effective customer survey that reveals how your customers shop and buy, helps you understand what services are important to your customers, and reveals insight into how customers experience your products and services.
The Dos and Don’ts of B2B Customer Surveys
Here’s how to design and implement a survey that captures the feedback you need.
Set a Clear Survey Objective
It’s important to set one or two clear objectives for what you want to learn from the survey results. Objectives can range from understanding general customer satisfaction to learning how customers perceive your brand or determining if customers are happy with a specific offering or want a new one.
Keep Surveys Short
Once a survey goes beyond 20 questions, the completion rate will fall off significantly. Balance any long-form questions where customers are required to write out answers, with multiple-choice questions to avoid survey fatigue. Effective surveys should take respondents no longer than eight to 10 minutes to complete.
B2B Customer Survey Questions
A good survey has a mix of multiple-choice and open-ended questions that support the objective. A specific open-ended question produces excellent information, in that you are hearing in a customer’s own words what their thoughts are. The most important quality of every question is how it relates to the survey objective. Some questions must be more sophisticated than others to achieve this.
Make sure you always put the questions you’re most interested in at the beginning of the survey to ensure answers and combat drop-offs.
Don’t Shy Away from Tough Survey Questions
Too often, distributors cling to the belief that they are their customers’ main supplier and aren’t interested in any evidence to the contrary. But one of the most effective survey questions distributors can ask is: Who is your main supplier?
At a minimum, we’ve found that 30% of customers indicate that another company is their main supplier. Though disappointing, this feedback provides invaluable insight into a set of customers who are already primed to increase their business with you. This is also an opportunity for an objective perspective – you’re not their main supplier for a reason. Tough questions are often going to yield the most actionable feedback.
Don’t Design Your Survey in a Vacuum
When drafting survey questions, engage others in the organization for feedback to be sure questions make sense. Then, consider the questions from the customers’ perspectives.
Brainstorm the best terminology for certain industrial segments. For instance, if you’re surveying plumbing contractors, research the terms that plumbing experts use as well as any lingo specific to your plumbing customers’ companies.
Maximize survey response with follow-up emails, social media, incorporating surveys at the counter, and sending postcards to those who don’t use email with a simple survey link. Sending reminders typically results in a 10%-20% lift in response per reminder.
Then, supplement the survey with interviews after customers take it. This adds important context and can be a good opportunity to bring in a third party to help gather and analyze data.
Ensure Credible Representation Through Incentives
Even small incentives like a free cup of coffee help response rates. Raffles work, but incentives where everyone gets a little something make a difference. While it’s good to get feedback from smaller customers, be sure to incent your top 10% customers to respond, leveraging sales reps and breaking out those Starbucks gift cards if need be.
It may take a smaller data set to be statistically significant – which means you can feel confident that the data reflects reality – than you might think. For instance, a smaller distributor with a customer base of 1,500 is not likely to get 1,200 survey responses. And you don’t need that.
It all depends on your objective; be realistic about how many respondents you need. Then, calculate the confidence level you need and the number of respondents required to speak to that objective.
A good rule of thumb is a minimum of 75 respondents for any level of confidence. But once companies grow past a certain contact base, they still won’t need more than 300 respondents for sampling accuracy, even if their customer base is 150,000.
Don’t Merge All Customers
If a distributor plans to analyze survey responses based on customer segments, it’s important to offer incentives to gather enough representation for a credible sample size in each. Add firmographic/demographic questions at the beginning of the survey if that segmentation is critical to meeting your objective.
These firmographic questions such as the employee count and revenues are important in segmenting customer responses. You need to know who you’re hearing from and the financial impact those customers have on your company.
Don’t Make Surveys Too Complex
Too many complex questions can tire respondents and lead to a high defection rate. For instance, forced ranking questions are difficult for respondents to answer. If the survey requires more complex questions, keep it short. If an open-ended question can capture the same information as a multiple-choice format, opt for the multiple-choice format when possible.
How often should you survey your customers?
As often as it relates to your objectives. Some distributors want to track satisfaction with a quick survey once a month. Many use the Net Promoter Score to do this, while others only survey once per year.
If the objective is to make changes quickly, it may make sense to send out a quick survey, make a shift, and then send a follow-up. Surveying can be fluid as long as it’s tightly designed to capture the information you are looking for about a particular topic.
A well-designed survey will leave distributors both nodding their heads in confirmation at some responses and stepping back in surprise at others. While understanding your customers sometimes means receiving tough answers, it’s the companies that never ask the questions who deny themselves the advantage of continually improving.
Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to talk about designing a survey for your organization.
Debbie Paul is Partner at Distribution Strategy Group. Debbie helps distributors identify and communicate their value so they can better serve and sell to their customers. At Newark Electronics, she oversaw the growth of small- to medium-sized high-potential accounts with results of over 10% growth in the first year, continuing in subsequent years at a rate of 15-20%. Ready to tap the full potential of your customer base? Contact Debbie at email@example.com.