FEATURE9 May 2011

Energy-efficient insight


The Energy Saving Trust has brought tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of research in-house using an online survey tool. Robert Bain speaks to insight manager Jennie Abelman about what the organisation has got out of the experience.


When the Energy Saving Trust first decided to cancel its regular external research projects and do them itself, it was driven by cost. But the impact of the change on how the non-profit body views and uses research has gone beyond the financial.

Funded by the government and the private sector, the Energy Saving Trust offers advice, information and support to businesses and organisations on ways to save energy and reduce waste. Last year its advice centres dealt with more than three million queries, so it’s vital for the trust to be able to gauge quickly and accurately how it’s doing.

“Everyone wants to do their own surveys, so I try and keep a check on what they’re doing. And I tend to find that people want the help anyway”

Jennie Abelman, Energy Saving Trust

In the past it did this by commissioning telephone customer satisfaction surveys and an annual staff survey online, but over the last couple of years it has brought things in-house using the online survey tool QuestBack. Initially this was because of the need to bring down costs in the wake of the downturn, and the trust has managed to save more than £20,000. But the impact goes further. For starters, it has been able to increase the frequency of its staff survey from yearly to quarterly, and its customer satisfaction survey from quarterly to monthly, with specific reports going to each of the trust’s 21 advice centres.

Doing it yourself
Research and insight manager Jennie Abelman believes the change has contributed to improved levels of customer satisfaction. Abelman said the QuestBack tool was so simple and cheap that she had “very little to lose” by giving it a go, initially to complement work done externally.

From there, it grew more popular throughout the organisation, she says. It has been used to survey customers’ experiences of energy-saving technologies, as well as for smaller ad hoc surveys looking at the organisation’s newsletters and events, and regular informal polls of staff.

Abelman has 20 years’ experience in research, so she knows what she’s doing. “This is a very simple package but it can provide most of what we need from a piece of research that you’d normally commission from an external agency,” she told Research.

QuestBack isn’t quite as DIY as some of the other survey tools out there – there’s no free version, and the subscription fee covers unlimited usage as well as access to support and quality review services. But like other such tools, it encourages end clients to write and administer their own surveys of customers or employees, rather than paying for an agency to do it, or just relying on a suggestion box next to the water cooler. The Norwegian firm lists Ernst & Young, Telenor and London South Bank University among its clients.

Staying in control
As the Energy Saving Trust’s staff do more of their own research, Abelman is the one who has to make sure they do it properly. “It gets a bit viral, and everyone wants to do their own surveys, so I try and control it by granting licences to people and keeping a check on what they’re doing,” she said. “And I tend to find that people want the help anyway. I tend to see the questionnaires and vet them, which you need to do, I think.”

“When you do these surveys in-house it brings home all the other things you’re paying for if you use an external agency”

Jennie Abelman, Energy Saving Trust

Tensions rarely arise from this as staff have “quite a strong incentive to get the survey right”. They do crop up, however, when Abelman has to tell people that a survey isn’t what they should be doing in the first place. “The main issue is when people want to quickly do a survey using QuestBack because for them it involves no internal cost. Sometimes you tell them this isn’t really the suitable way of going about it, and that they need to be talking to these people and not just winging them a quick email survey. It comes down to good customer management – rather than picking up the phone and talking directly, people want to just send out a questionnaire. You have to explain that, while it might take longer, it’s better customer relations to actually talk to them over the phone.”

A fresh approach
Abelman hasn’t given up on research agencies – in fact she says the experience of doing it for herself has reminded her of the value that they can provide. And so far it has only been used with the Energy Saving Trust’s own sample of existing customers – anything requiring a broader sample is a different matter.

“When you do these surveys in-house it brings home all the other things you’re paying for if you use an external agency – it’s the analysis that can take time, and the writing up, rather than just designing the survey. It makes me appreciate some of the more sophisticated forms of online survey.”

To make the most of the data they gather, she and her staff have to be handy with packages like Excel and SPSS and be willing to get involved at a “minute level”, says Abelman. Which is great as long as you remember to “see the wood for the trees”.

“As open-ended responses aren’t coded, you have to come up with ways of dealing with verbatims. People do get an appetite for verbatims, especially if you’re dealing with fairly small sample sizes. It is changing the nature of research surveys, as coded answers go out and people look at verbatims instead, it makes people closer to the customer view.”

While some in the research industry have raised fears that DIY tools leave companies free to carry out poor-quality research without the guidance of a professional agency, it’s clear that it also opens up opportunities for companies to re-think how to get the best value from what they spend. For the Energy Saving Trust, DIY has proven to have pros and cons, just like any other approach. But the flexibility it offers has led to a healthy re-evaluation of how the organisation views its research, as well as how it views its customers.