Case Study: Surveying as a Decision Making Tool

In September of 2011, I posted about using business milestones as catalysts for growth. Surveying your key stakeholders -- customers, trade accounts, distributors, etc.-- is a method for gaining an understanding of your business's current position and perception.  The knowledge acquired from a survey is also a great tool for charting a course of action forward to achieve your next milestone.

We are currently working with McKinley Springs Winery on a brand strategy project and used distributor surveying as a research and decision-making tool.  The winery's Bombing Range Red is a terrific red blend from Washington's Horse Heaven Hills and offers a unique story and excellent value, given it's delicious taste and $12 price point.  It has been a vehicle for sales growth given its excellent positioning, and we are looking to help McKinley Springs continue to grow sales with either a positioning change, add-on wine, or both.  (I am not giving specifics on the questions they had or the actions we're now taking, but will share how we approached the survey and used it as a decision-making tool.)

Instead of making recommendations about additional wines or packaging based solely on our experience and industry expertise, we designed and conducted surveys of the winery's distributors to gain an understanding of the brand's strengths, challenges and areas of opportunity in its distribution markets.  Since McKinley Springs is a small, family owned and operated winery, we elected to use qualitative phone surveys over online collection tools to allow for more pointed inquiry and analysis. 

We spoke to all but one distributor, most of whom were happy to be asked to give feedback (versus being asked to sell a new or changed product they were never consulted about), and some of whom gave us some great creative ideas for our next steps.  Simply asking for feedback can provide buy-in for the future in addition to knowledge acquisition.   Further, in speaking directly with the men and women who are interacting with buyers everyday, we avoided the "marketer trap" of offering suggestions without field data and were able to test the hypotheses we developed based on this research.

After completing the survey period, we analyzed all of the answers and provided McKinley Springs with a grouping and ranking of responses and our recommendations.  We are now proceeding with the next phase -- elevating the brand positioning and -- will be introducing the fruits of our joint effort in the spring of 2013.  Stay tuned . . .

In closing, there are a few survey design best practices I'd like to share:

1. Begin with the end in mind.  Determine specifically what you'd like to know before launching into questions.

2. Develop a list of all possible questions.  We tend to recommend 10 or fewer questions to avoid survey fatigue and therefore increase response rate, but it is important to consider all angles before committing to specific questions.  You can then narrow them down to a reasonable amount and select those that are best worded.

3. Consider the effect of how the question is asked.  Yes/no questions give you very little data.  Since "yes" or "no" is often the result, we tend to avoid this question.  (There are of course exceptions, but very few.)   There is also the element of the amount of data you'll be collecting.  Open-ended questions like "please explain" give you a wealth of data, but can be very difficult and time consuming to analyze.  Often, a "rank" or "select all that apply" or what we call "temperature check" (i.e., strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree) are more useful.

4. Consider the order of your questions.  Your survey should flow well -- you don't want to hop from pricing to customer experience to value to club membership.  Group like questions together to make the experience more thoughtful for respondents.

5. Keep it short to avoid responder fatigue (and abandonment).  Three questions are excellent, six work well and ten are still okay.  Go beyond that and it becomes a lot more work for everyone involved.

6. Offer an incentive to increase response rate.  If you're planning an event, give away a complimentary registration.  If you're asking for feedback from your club members, gift as a special bottle.  Consider offering multiple incentives to increase the respondent's excitement around his/her chances of winning.

7. Determine how you will conduct and distribute the survey.  If you're doing a qualitative analysis with phone or in-person meetings, you'll be taking notes and perhaps recording the sessions.  Surveys deployed with online tools do not allow for clarification questions, but can reach a wider audience more efficiently and provide analysis tools.  In either case, a clear set of instructions is very important and should detail the 5 W's (who is conducting it, what method is being used, when will it be due and followed up upon, where will it be conducted and why it is being conducted).

8. Consider the value of anonymity.  We almost always recommend it to increase the level and value of the feedback.  If respondents feel that there is a chance for retribution, they will be more careful and measured in their responses.

9. Set a deadline for responses that is within a week.  If you give respondents too long, they will delay; and, if there isn't enough time, those who are particularly busy when they receive it will delete it.

10.  Give respondents feedback.  Thank everyone who participated and let them know when you'll be making decisions.  Recognize the winners if you offered incentives.  Then, once you analyze the results and decide upon a course of action, communicate the high-level summary of actions and thank them again.

If the thought of the time investment required to survey your key stakeholders is overwhelming, send us a note.

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