The Client Survey: How to Set Up and Execute

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The following is a guest article by Will Richards of the Research Alliance, a leading business development agency for independent research (www.theresearchalliance.com).  This is the third article in a series examining challenges and opportunities facing independent research providers.  The first article can be found here and the second article here.

Do you survey your clients?  When was the last time you asked your clients what they need and want?

Most of the IRPs that we partner with believe with ‘above average’ certainty that they know the needs of their clients.  But this is similar to the way that most husbands think they know what their wives want.  They are making assumptions based on familiarity.  They are assuming that just because they have a relationship with their clients they know what they want.

In fact there is only one way to know for sure – and it is a scary proposition.  To be certain you know what your clients & prospects need and want, you must ask them.  And the reason why most of us don’t do this (either in business, or in the home) is because it can leave us feeling vulnerable and even inadequate.  What if we can’t deliver on what is needed?  This might leave us in an even worse position than never asking at all.

If you haven’t done a proper survey of your clients in the past 3 years, then you don’t know.  The needs of the market change quickly.  And not knowing with 100% certainty what your clients/prospects need and want – and having some empirical data to it back up — is a dangerous place to be as the owner of a business.

We believe it is better to know the light of the truth than to live in the darkness of denial – better to know the truth than to fool ourselves with beliefs that are misguided.  Why?  Because this knowledge gives us the opportunity to brainstorm on HOW we might meet their needs.  Perhaps a simple adjustment on our end is all that is needed to open the market to our research product.  A simple adjustment that could result in an increase of our market share.

Components of a good client survey

At the Research Alliance, we have been designing client surveys for over 13 years.  There are several components that are integral to a successful client survey.  These include:

  • Open ended questions
  • A review of written publications
  • Profile information about the respondents (to understand how the needs of one group of users might differ from another – PMs vs analysts, or specialists vs generalists)
  • A ‘carte-blanche’ request for suggestions, improvements and things the users would like to see

An effective client survey will result in a better understanding of which components of a research service are most valuable, which ones are not used, and what new features may need to be incorporated.

Survey execution: Who will write it, and who will do it?

If designed incorrectly, a survey may simply reinforce the faulty assumptions the IRP has about their client base to begin with.  It is important to properly research and design the questions that will be asked.  Equally as important is having an independent third party execute the survey on your behalf.  This is important for two reasons.

Firstly, buy-side PMs and analysts are notoriously difficult to get a hold of.  Working with a partner that understands the best way to reach your clients, and how to do this in an unobtrusive manner is paramount to achieving the sample size of respondents required to gather meaningful data.

Secondly, clients may withhold important information if being surveyed by the IRP.  This is especially true for critical feedback.  It is only natural not to want to ‘hurt someone’s feelings.’ Having a neutral party execute the survey will allow your clients to answer more freely, and to provide the constructive criticism that may unlock the full potential of your product.

The client survey – a critical step in gaining market share.

At the Research Alliance, we have implemented business development plans for our research partners using the results of a market survey to guide us, but we have also implemented plans without one.  When we made the mistake of skipping the client survey, our business development plans have never worked, and the partnerships we made with IRPs failed.

Knowledge is power, and it gives the opportunity to change and grow.  And the humble client survey is a key weapon in gaining this knowledge.

The next article in the series covers another key area for improvement: lead generation.

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About Author

Will Richards founded the Research Alliance in 2006 (www.theresearchalliance.com) to help boutique research firms meet their business development goals. In addition to over two decades of experience in sales and marketing, Will has extensive experience in selling independent financial research to institutional buy-side clients in the US, Europe, and Asia. From 2000 to 2004, Will was a key member of the team at BCA Research that developed a systematic sales process for opening new accounts and managing relationships with institutional buy-side clients. Will holds a Bachelor of Arts from McGill University. Will Richards can be reached at will@theresearchalliance.com or 514-849-1991.

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