Once you’ve made some decisions on your research, it’s time to consider the format. Consider whether you should do this yourself or hire an outside research agency. (An agency may be able to administer the research and walk you through your options.) Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly used techniques to collect both qualitative and quantitative data.
Interviews, a qualitative research technique, simply mean asking customers and prospects about your business and its products. Among the most prevalent interview types is the telephone interview, because it’s a quick and affordable way to get information. You prepare a script with a few (and only a few) salient questions you want to ask, then make calls to a list of customers and/or prospects.
Focus Groups, another qualitative method, are a type of interview, but they’re conducted with a group of people instead of one-on-one. A focus group typically comprises 8 to 10 pre-screened participants assembled in a room to discuss specific topics related to your business. It’s usually facilitated by a professional and objective moderator, and it’s typically conducted offsite, in a room with a one-way mirror (which you sit behind to observe the proceedings). One reason that focus groups are so valuable: The informal format promotes lively conversations about your market and your business, and even enables the moderator to ask participants follow-up questions about their answers and opinions.
Surveys are the most prevalent quantitative data collection technique used by small businesses. With surveys, you collect specific, statistical information by interacting with members of a target audience. The primary difference between a survey and qualitative data collection methods such as interviews and focus groups: In a survey, you are looking to amass statistical information, not opinions, so your questions will likely be more data-focused. For example, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate this company’s customer service?” Then you compile the numbers to determine your strengths and weaknesses.
There are typically three types of surveys:
- Telephone. You call customers and prospects and ask them a series of questions. You can hire people to do this for you—many companies use college students. But conducting surveys yourself can give you personal insights that an outsider may miss.
- Mail. If you don’t have time to conduct dozens of telephone surveys, you can reach a wide audience via direct mail. Depending on how many questions you ask, your survey can take the form of a postcard, a letter or a flyer.
- Online. Online surveys have become extremely popular among small businesses for two compelling reasons: 1. They’re inexpensive. Unlike mail surveys, you don’t have to pay for paper and postage. 2. They typically enjoy better response rates than mail surveys.
Questionnaires are the primary tool used in conducting surveys. A good, well-crafted questionnaire can give you exactly the valuable information you seek; a bad questionnaire can scuttle your entire research initiative. Here are a few basic tips on creating an effective survey questionnaire:
- Keep it short. Always remember that people filling out the questionnaire are likely on the verge of throwing it away — so don’t overstay your welcome. The fewer questions you ask, the more likely the questionnaire will be completed and submitted. Under no circumstances should your questionnaire exceed 20 questions, and it should usually be much shorter than that.
- Ask closed-ended questions. Remember, a survey is a quantitative, not qualitative, tool. The answers are meant to be compiled for statistical analysis. So avoid asking open-ended questions that require written explanations. Instead, craft multiple-choice questions that lend themselves to quick answers, such as “yes/no,” “always/often/sometimes/never,” “strongly agree/agree/disagree /strongly disagree,” and/or numerical ranking scales such as 1 to 5 or 1 to 10. (You can also give respondents the option to write in comments at the end of the document.)
- Make it easy. Don’t intimidate survey respondents with a complex-looking document. Make your survey approachable and easy to read—especially the first page. Frame your response options in simple column/row format. For online surveys, offer response options in drop-down boxes, and include a status bar that shows respondents the “finish line.”