It pays to listen to customers

SAN FRANCISCO (09/22/2003) - When you talk, I listen. I recently surveyed readers of my Home Office online newsletter and altered a few things about it based on their feedback. The two surveying and polling tools I use are powerful, free, and perfect for getting direct insight into what clients, club members--and heck, even relatives--are thinking.

My favorite polling program is PollMonkey. In less than 10 minutes, I can create a professional-looking poll with one question and up to 50 choices for answering. Respondents are tracked with a harmless cookie (so they can vote only once); and when they're done with the survey, I can either show them a message before they exit or let them see the poll results. A free PollMonkey account has no ads, pop-ups, or other nuisances, but it is limited to 100 responses per month. For US$20 a month you get up to 10,000 responses. Why not give the service a try with a poll I created, or create your own poll at Pollmonkey.com?

Most of us have customers of one kind or another (you're one of mine, by the way). It makes good business sense to get as much of your customers' feedback as possible. I've used SurveyMonkey for about ten surveys, and I couldn't be happier with it. For instance, I've learned exactly what attracts people to the user group I run. I've also heard the members' opinions of the group newsletter, and the type of demos they like the best. Responses to the surveys I conducted of Home Office online newsletter subscribers were brutal but enlightening. Readers told me loud and clear how much of the newsletter they read, what topics they find valuable, and what topics they'd like to hear more about.

Keep your survey short and simple so respondents don't jump ship in midreply. SurveyMonkey has 16 question styles, including multiple choice, matrix, and the style I liked best: open-ended essays (see a sample).

The easiest way to distribute your surveys is by sending respondents an e-mail message containing the survey URL. SurveyMonkey can also import a mailing list to generate your e-mail invitations automatically. That's more work, but it's ideal if you want to track customer responses.

SurveyMonkey Shines

The free version of SurveyMonkey limits your survey to no more than 10 questions and 100 respondents--more than enough room to handle quick, spur-of-the-moment surveys. SurveyMonkey is civil with its free version: There are no ads, banners, spyware, or pop-ups. And don't worry about privacy. SurveyMonkey lets me collect responses, but the site notes only a respondent's IP address and sets a benign cookie so they can go back a page in their browser without losing data. Browse to read SurveyMonkey's privacy statement.

For more-extensive survey demands, SurveyMonkey charges $20 to field 1000 responses per month. The fee service includes features that individuals and small businesses are likely to find unnecessary. For example, the paid service lets you add a logo to your survey. It also supports skip-logic questions, in which different answers to one question lead to specific follow-up questions. And you can require that all of a survey's questions be answered before it's accepted. The paid version conveniently lets you show respondents the survey results on the SurveyMonkey Web site and lets you export the survey results.

I do have a couple of complaints about SurveyMonkey, however. First, it has no spelling checker, so I have to write the survey questions in Word (to use its spelling checker) and then cut and paste them into the online survey form. Second, the service's help is weak. This shortcoming is particularly troublesome for people who have never created a survey. But don't fret--I'll have a survey tutorial in an upcoming online newsletter. Visit Free Newsletters to sign up.

Now it's your turn to give me some feedback: Take a short survey about this column. And no, I don't want to hear what you think of my top-of-the-page portrait.

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