OPINION12 October 2010

Do it yourself if you must, just make sure you do it properly


Jonathan Pickup of McCallum Layton offers some tips on how companies can put DIY research tools into practice effectively.

There is an increasing need these days for businesses to justify their research spend. This has resulted in traditional market research buyers conducting more of this work in-house with online do-it-yourself survey packages.

These offer a number of advantages. The annual product licence can work out much cheaper than commissioning a third party to conduct research on your behalf – some of the tools are even free. Providing you can mobilise quickly, having these capabilities in-house also enables you to respond effectively to changing information requirements, without needing to go through time-consuming procurement processes.

“Writing a questionnaire is something that anyone can do, but it’s deceptively difficult to do well”

Some commentators from the market research industry have criticised the use of DIY tools, arguing that they encourage bad practices and threaten the industry. As an agencyside research manager I understand those concerns but I take a more moderate view. Although the tools themselves may not be up to the standard of the products offered by a specialist research agency, they can still do an efficient and effective job in the right hands.

The critical point here, though, is how they are used, as poorly designed research can do more harm than good. There are a few things you can do to make sure online survey software works effectively for your business.

1. Take control
Perhaps the most important piece of advice I can offer is to make sure the use of survey software is carefully controlled within your business. Allowing open access to the software can easily result in a number of different people from different areas of the organisation all deciding to run some research among similar groups of customers. Not only can this lead to some people being bombarded with survey requests, in the worst cases it can also result in them being asked the same questions several times over.

Avoiding situations like this is essential, as it can make customers less likely to want to help by taking part in future research and affect their perception of your business. This is why it is always a good idea to ensure that either the survey software is managed by a single team or, at the very least, a central record is kept of when surveys have been sent out, who they were sent to and what questions have been asked. Most customers will be happy to receive and respond to short surveys once or twice a year. More frequent requests are likely to be viewed negatively.

2. Don’t underestimate the need for research skills
Writing a questionnaire is something that anyone can do, but it’s deceptively difficult to do well. The task should always be taken seriously – poor questionnaire design can lead to poor data, and if you intend to make business decisions based on it, the risks are obvious. Consider the experience of someone filling in the survey. If the questions are unclear or irrelevant, this will lead to a negative experience. The same can be said for a survey which takes too long to complete, so prioritise ‘need to know’ over ‘nice to know’ questions.

Always look at the questionnaire with critical eyes. Play devil’s advocate, and try to pull the questions apart, to anticipate how they could be misinterpreted. And think about the sorts of answers you will get back from each question, and ask yourself how that data will meet the need that you started out with. If you struggle to make the link, it probably means the question could be improved.

If there is someone with a background in market research within your business, get them involved in the drafting process, or at least ask them to check the questionnaire before it is sent out. If you can’t find anyone to speak to, don’t feel that you can’t call a research agency. Many researchers would see this as an opportunity to learn about your business and will be happy to discuss your project. Remember that making small improvements at this stage can make all the difference to the quality of the information you receive back.

3. Look at the experience through your customers’ eyes
Remember that consumers will view the survey itself as an extension of your brand. As such, it needs to look and feel professional. Customers should be made to feel that they are being included in the research process rather than viewing it as a chore. Explain why you are asking them to give their opinions and what you intend to do with the information. If appropriate, you could consider some post-survey engagement to share some of the results or to let customers know about any initiatives you are developing in reaction to their feedback.

4. Don’t start the work until you have time to manage it
If you are going to run your own project make sure that you have the necessary internal resources ready before you start sending surveys out. You may need to be in a position to react to any queries raised during the research; leaving these unanswered can again have a negative impact on customer perceptions.

If there’s a danger of this happening, the best course of action would be to postpone the survey until a time when the resources are available. If this isn’t an option, weigh up the additional cost of commissioning an agency to run your fieldwork. Often the benefit of having someone managing your survey full time can be worth more than the savings you might make by running it in-house.

5. Remember you can’t do everything
Normally, customers will be more than happy to provide you with honest and open feedback. However, if you’re looking to evaluate something a little more personal, they may be less likely to provide full information if they think their responses are going to be analysed at an individual level. If you are asking questions about a customer’s interaction with a service representative, they may be reluctant to mention minor negative points if they believe these will get back to the person in question – with their name attached.

Stating in the invitation to the survey that all responses will be analysed in aggregated form will help allay some of these concerns, but it should still be recognised that there are some types of research, such as staff surveys, where making sure that data is held and processed by an impartial third party is imperative to achieving open and honest responses.

Jonathan Pickup is b2b research manager at McCallum Layton