September 17, 2020 | Dr. Joan Fulton, Dr. John Foltz and Barbara Foltz
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How to Use Surveys to Enhance Your Business

Harvested data provides a competitive edge

Today’s world is an information world. No matter how much information you have, it never seems to be enough! In fact, the truth is — to be competitive you do need more and more information. Some of the information that you need you can get from secondary data sources also known as public information sources (e.g. government data for national and aggregate trends such as unemployment levels and rising fuel prices).

However, there are many times you have a need for data that is specific to your feed and grain business and that requires primary data collection. You have many different stakeholder groups and could have need for information from any of them. You might want information about how satisfied existing customers are with a new product line you have recently rolled out, or how customers would react to a new product, or how satisfied employees are with the work climate in your business, or how much employees learned from recent training programs. To get this information you will need to survey a particular stakeholder group.

Surveys are commonly used these days as you may have noticed (for the reasons outlined above — information is useful and helps management make good decisions that improve business profitability).  These range from the card in the hotel room where you are asked to rate your satisfaction with your stay, to the phone call you get from a manufacturer following auto service, to the on-line requests asking you to rate your recent on-line purchase or your recent airline flight.

Important information can be obtained from surveys. However, you know yourself that there are a lot of surveys out there and people are often bombarded with requests to complete these various surveys — so it is important for you to get it right. In this article we highlight some key points concerning developing and administering surveys that will help you collect useful information and then evaluate the data you receive from them.

Focus your goals, identify target audience

The first step in a survey is study design and planning. The first questions you need to answer are “what is your real need here?” and “what questions do you expect to be able to answer as a result of collecting the information from the survey?” Having answers to these questions will affect how you move forward. For example, if your objective is to grow market share, then you will be looking for the answer to the question: “what is it that customers who are not currently using my product/service are looking for?” This will require that you survey potential customers, rather than current customers — because it is the potential customers that you want to learn about. It might be tempting to survey your current customer base, because you easily have a list of those folks — but the information gained from current customers will not give you the best answers to the questions you are looking for in order to grow your market share.

There are several points to consider related to “who” you will survey. First you want to identify the appropriate population to survey — as noted above you may want to distinguish between current and potential customers. Once you have identified the appropriate population or group to survey you need to determine if you will survey the entire population or a sample of the population. For example, if you have identified the population that you will survey to be your current customers then you need to decide if you will survey everyone from your customer list or just a representative sample.  

If you decide to go with a sample you will need to decide how to draw the sample of names that you will survey. The sample can be drawn in different ways and the approach that you use should be consistent with the objectives for your business. A random sample involves selecting a small fraction of the targeted population. You could draw a simple random sample from your list of customers. This approach could work out great — but it could also turn out that there are no customers in your sample from one particular geographic region of your market. To ensure that all of the major groups of customers are covered in the sample you could use a stratified random sample. In selecting a stratified random sample you first identify the different categories of your population that you want to be sure and have represented in the sample that you survey. For example, you might want to make sure that different geographic regions are represented or alternatively you might want to ensure that each of the different groups of your customers by size are represented. In setting up a stratified random sample — break your population list out by the groupings that you want to be sure and include. Then one group at a time draw a random sample. This will ensure that you have representation from each of the groups that you desire.

How to draw a random sample — the idea here is that you want to draw a sample from your total population so that each individual has the same chance of being selected to be in the sample. One way that you can do this is to put your total list into a spreadsheet with each individual being in a new row. Next, insert a column (we like to have it on the far left hand side) labeled “Number”. Start with the number No. 1 for the first individual and number each of the individuals sequentially. Now suppose that you have 500 individuals in this spreadsheet and you want to randomly draw 25 of these names to send the survey to. Next, go to a random number generator (randomizer.org/form.htm) and submit a request for 25 random numbers between 1 and 500 with no repeats. Then take the numbers that are generated and the individuals with those numbers are the ones that you will survey.

Finally we note a commonly used sampling approach — and that is the convenience sample. Just as the name would suggest this is when you sample according to what is convenient. If you wanted to sample from a broad list of potential and new customers you might have a list from an industry trade organization that included many, but not all of your population group. Using this industry trade organization list would be an example of a convenience sample.

So why would you want to use a random sample versus a convenience sample, versus a survey of the entire population? A random sample gives you a truer reading (in a statistical sense) of what is happening in the population you are sampling. A convenience sample, while not as accurate in a statistical sense — is easier, quicker and cheaper to perform — and the same is true for a sample compared to surveying the entire population.

Another issue associated with how you select your sample is how you will communicate with the individuals you are surveying. You will need email or mail addresses if you plan to use electronic or mail surveys. If you plan to do a phone survey then you will obviously need phone numbers.

Even with the very best lists of individuals, you need to plan on the fact that you will never get a complete set of responses and therefore you will have non-response bias in your survey results. We will discuss this in more detail below under “Analyzing the Data from Your Survey.” As you work with these issues related to selecting the desired population and then the most appropriate sample — keep in mind your overall need for the information and how the individuals who you are most likely to get responses from, will get you the information that is most helpful to you.

Formulating the survey questions

Writing the survey questions seems like it should be easy — yet there are a number of pitfalls that you can easily fall into. There are some questions that your audience may find intrusive. Examples of these include items like income and age. Asking these questions so that the respondent selects a category (or range) reduces the risk that the respondent will find this intrusive and increases the chance that he/she will answer your question. Another common approach in surveys is to keep your questions related to demographics (age, income, gender, etc) until the end of the survey. There is a greater chance that individuals will respond to these questions at the end of the survey compared to at the beginning of the survey. If you are using one of the on-line survey instruments and the respondent does “click out” of the survey when he/she reaches a “sensitive” question you at least have the responses to the first questions. Similarly if you are conducting a phone survey you will have responses to the early questions.

The wording of a question can and does influence the responses that you get. It is really easy to word a question so that virtually everyone will answer “yes” and then you will fail to get the information that you need. Taking the time to pre-test your survey can be critical here as the pre-testing is where you will learn about poorly worded questions. Doing a pre-test will also help you uncover questions that people misinterpret.

The best length for your survey is also a tricky issue. On the one hand it seems that since you have people’s attention — why not make sure that you get all of the information that you might need! However, when surveys get to be too long, participants will simply give up and not respond any further.  

Another thing that you will need to consider is whether to use open-ended questions – which means allowing the respondent to provide his/her ideas directly (i.e. “fill in the blank” type questions) or to use a “check the category” response type. Open-ended questions allow for you to get all of the different ideas that come to mind from  the respondent. However, in some cases respondents appreciate having choices to click as they find that easier than thinking up their own ideas. It is also easier to analyze the results from the “check the category” questions, because they will fall into a limited number of definitive categories.

Constructing the survey

Now that you are constructing the survey you need to decide if you are going to use a mail survey, an on-line survey, a phone survey, or in-person interviews. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type and your selection should be driven by the audience you are trying to reach and the medium which will be most effective for them.

On-line surveys have become very popular because they can be relatively inexpensive and the results are provided in an easy-to-use electronic format. There are different software packages that you can use, two examples: surveymonkey.com or zoomerang.com. If you are collecting data during a meeting or gathering, you can use an audience interaction tool, i.e. clickers, see iclicker.com as an example. One drawback to on-line surveys is you must have email address for all in your sample.  Using only those in the sample with e-mails will not give you a representative sample of the population you are targeting.

Once you have the survey questions set and have decided on the medium you will use it is very important to pre-test your survey. Many times this step gets missed only to hear from those developing the survey that “if only they had pre-tested the survey they would have figured out what questions were not effective.” When pre-testing your survey, find people to complete the pre-test who have the same background as those who will ultimately be answering your survey. It is common to use phrases or words that have meaning to certain groups of people — so having the appropriate group pre-test your survey will help you determine if you have any wording/phrases that would be confusing for respondents.

An effective tactic which will improve your response rate is to briefly outline why you are doing your survey in a paragraph or so. Something like: “We are considering offering a new service in our market area, and are collecting responses from both our current and potential customers regarding your opinions. Your input is highly valued and will allow us to better serve our region.”

Administering your survey

To increase your response rate, and thus the value of the data you collect, you will most likely need to follow up — as people are busy and will need a reminder. Depending on the medium you use (mail or e-mail) you can send out your reminder via the same medium.  If you are keeping the responses anonymous you may have to contact people who have already responded — this is a bit awkward, but can be addressed with a statement such as: “If you have already responded to our survey, thank you very much for your valuable input. If you have not had a chance to complete our survey, we would appreciate your input.” If your survey is anonymous, be sure and let your audience know this.

Finally, you will need to gather up the data from your survey. If you used an on-line mechanism this will come to you in electronic form. If you performed your survey in some other form, you will need to get the data entered into an electronic form, usually a spreadsheet for ease of analysis.

Analyzing the data from your survey

There are a number of ways to analyze your data, from hiring a Survey Research group to buying an online program, to entering the data yourself into an excel spread sheet. The later is more time consuming and will have less out-of-pocket costs than the other choices. Basic analysis will involve calculating statistics such as mean (average) and range, which can be accomplished with your spreadsheet. Your spreadsheet can also graph data via a pie or bar chart, which can be helpful in visualizing your results.

More complex analysis might include running a regression analysis. In short, regression analysis attempts to mathematically determine the relationship between a dependent variable and one or more independent variables. In a business setting, you might model sales as your dependent variable and expenditures on advertising as a simple model, i.e. sales is dependent upon advertising expenditures. In this case the result would tell you quantitatively how much sales respond to changes in dollars spent on advertising. For a very quick explanation, click here.

We mentioned non-response bias above, and this can occur in a survey if the answers of your respondents differ from the potential answers of those who did not answer. There are different ways to test for non-response bias. In e-mail surveys some values are already known from all potential participants (e.g. age, business, male, female, counties) and can be compared to the values that prevail in the subgroup of those who answered. If there is no significant difference this is an indicator that there may be no non-response bias. In e-mail and mail surveys those who didn't answer can also be phoned and a small number of survey questions can be asked. If their answers don't differ significantly from those who answered the survey, there should be no non-response bias.

Using the results

The results of your survey can be a great source of input as you make changes to move your grain and feed business forward. We urge you to take the actions that you feel make the most sense. Remember that survey results give you good information, but this information must be evaluated with your knowledge of your business and the market.

Be sure and let your audience know that you paid attention to their input and that their input influenced the actions of your business. People appreciate knowing that their voice was heard and appreciate it even more when they realize that their suggestions were followed up on. This can be important for loyalty from customers who completed a customer survey and commitment from employees who completed a climate workplace survey. All in all, periodic surveys can be an appropriate tool in your management toolbox.

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