How to gather strategic intelligence

Online surveys are one of the best ways to check the pulse of a business and gain valuable insight into the organization. While posting surveys to a company’s Web site is the fastest and easiest way to gather feedback from employees and customers, designing an effective survey that will yield strategic business intelligence is both an art and a science.

Strategic survey design can range from the creative (content, wording, and placement) to the scientific (sampling, deployment, and reporting). However, the bulk of survey creation is common sense. Follow these basic steps for building online surveys that will harvest useful and accurate business intelligence for years to come.

DEFINE THE SURVEY’S MISSION
A common misconception about survey design is that the questions and targeted list of respondents should be developed first. However, the most important and usually most taxing part of survey creation is defining the survey’s mission and function.

Before gathering data the type of information sought and the specific purpose the findings are to support must be identified. A clear and concise mission statement will steer the survey in the proper direction and generate the data most needed.

Once the survey mission is defined, determine who has the required information. It is important to understand who the sample represents in order to draw accurate conclusions from the data.

Most often, a survey will gather feedback from a cross-section of employees and customers within an organization. For employee surveys, random selection tends to assure the most representative sample and will probably generate the highest credibility among respondents. For customer surveys, concentrate on a particular segment of the customer base.

For instance, target the customers who make the decisions to use products or services and invite them to participate.

FOLLOW REGULATIONS
Several organizations provide online listings of ethics and standards that companies are encouraged to use as guidelines for developing effective surveys. Before assembling questions and deployment options, consult one of more of these resources for the appropriate ground rules for online research:
•Canadian Association of Marketing Research Organizations (www.camro.org);
•American Association for Public Opinion Research (www.aapor.org);
•Council of American Survey Research Organizations (www.casro.org); and
•American Marketing Association (www.ama.org).

CREATING THE SURVEY
Several factors drive candid survey participation including length, complexity and relevance. To ensure a higher standard of input, the survey should be functional and straightforward.
•Keep question length short and concise.
•Break the survey up into graphically rich, multiple screens.
•Customize the look and feel of the survey by adding company logos, custom backgrounds, images or HTML templates.
•Drill down to more specific answers by setting up question branching so the survey changes based on response patterns.
•Do not solicit personal information or slant questions to ensure specific answers.

INVITING THE AUDIENCE
Send invitations via mail or e-mail, inviting employees and customers to help better serve them. Include a privacy act statement that explains the survey’s mission and scope. Once customers and employees log on to the Web site, make sure the survey’s contents are exactly as described in the invitation.

Offer incentives wherever possible. Participants are more likely to respond openly if they are receiving something in return. For example, customers may appreciate coupons or discounts on products or services while employees may value free company-branded merchandise.

RESPONDENT AUTHENTICATION
There are two types of Web survey respondents: non-validated and validated. Non-validated participants are unsolicited, random Web surfers who visit a company’s site and take a survey. Validated participants are respondents that have been invited to participate in a survey from a pre-qualified list on a restrictive access basis. The only way to garner accurate findings is to validate participants and ensure they only take the survey once. Non-validated participants can seriously skew data.

Choose a survey system that offers a respondent authentication feature. Respondent authentication guarantees accurate results by allowing only designated respondents to take a survey and precluding them from taking it more than once. This feature should also allow users to host results on their own Web sites or intranets, integrate surveys and protect responses within corporate environments and behind firewalls.

REAL-TIME REPORTS
Customers and employees will want to view survey results instantly so they can understand the context of their feedback and justify their contribution. Be sure to allow all respondents instant access to results and display the reports in real-time with fully automated tables and multi-media features.

BEYOND THE WEB
Web surveys allow for targeting of specific groups, reaching distant employees or customers in real time, and viewing customizable, multi-level reports immediately. However, in order to reach a valid cross-section of employees and customers, it is important to take into consideration those who do not have access to e-mail or the Internet. In this case, Web surveys should be used in conjunction with more traditional survey methods in order to enhance response rates and accuracy.

For example, when Chevron chose to survey its 33,000 employees worldwide, the company required a survey strategy that was powerful and flexible enough to span departments, industries, and language barriers.

The multinational company had to supply different survey versions to satisfy the needs of every employee — whether they were working in a regional office, surveying a natural gas field, driving a tanker truck, or stationed out in the ocean on an oil rig. This gave Chevron the capability to deploy its surveys via the Internet, intranet, e-mail, corporate network, reply-by-mail diskette and in optical mark reader (OMR scannable paper) form. In addition, since Chevron is active in more than 90 countries, the company’s surveys had to be translated into multiple languages and deployed in various formats.

Using online surveys to learn what employees and customers want will help companies maintain leadership in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Instead of waiting for data to be collected and compiled in a written report, companies can receive valuable feedback to inform business decisions on a constant, evolving basis.

If a company takes the time to build a strategic Web survey, it will yield business intelligence, enhance interactions with customers and employees and transform its Web site into a true communications platform.

Sam Goodner is the CEO of Inquisite Inc. He can be reached at (512) 328-8181.

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