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How to conduct a business to business survey

By Andrew Dalglish -

There are six steps if you’re looking to conduct your own business to business survey.  One, clearly define your objectives. Two, design a questionnaire which meets these and avoids common pitfalls (overly long with leading, double-barrelled, jargon filled, ambiguous questions). Three, pilot the survey. Four, decide whether telephone, online or face-to-face will  get the best response rate.  Five, incentivise it appropriately. And six, don’t act on the findings unless they’re reliable and representative.

Let me expand.

With the plethora of DIY research tools on the market nowadays, every man and his dog reckons they’re a market researcher.   After all, how hard can it be to design a survey?  Well, in truth it’s rather difficult and that’s why the world has been flooded by a tidal wave of crap research.  Not only is that annoying, it’s doing significant damage to the brands these hapless researchers represent.  That’s especially true in business to business markets where the target market is small and relationships are critical.  If a valued customer or prospect receives a poorly designed survey, they’ll quite rightly question how much you really value them and their opinion.

So let me share a few tips for anyone looking to conduct a business to business survey themselves.

First, stop and think.  Why are you doing the survey – what are your goals and how will you use the information the survey gathers?  Then, having reflected on your motivations, write a concise statement which details the overarching objective of the survey and the specific information you need to gather to reach this objective.  This will keep you focussed throughout subsequent steps.

Armed with these information objectives, you’ll then need to design a survey questionnaire.  In doing so, avoid these common survey pitfalls:

  • The 100 question survey – If a question doesn’t directly relate to your objectives or if you can’t say exactly what you’d do in response to the answer, then don’t ask it. My advice would be to aim for a survey length of around 10 – 20 questions max as business to business survey respondents are time poor
  • The leading survey question – Be careful that survey questions aren’t deliberately or inadvertently leading the respondent to a particular answer. Read and re-read them to check they’re not biased in any way
  • The double barrelled survey question – A question should only ask the respondent to comment on one thing so that it’s clear what their answer relates to. Check that you’re not asking respondents to feed back on multiple things with one answer option
  • The jargon filled or overly complex survey question – A question should make perfect sense to ‘the man on the street’ even though your targeting a business to business audience. Otherwise what you think you’ve asked may not be the question people are actually answering
  • The ambiguous question – A question should be very precise and clear about what it is asking, leaving no room for interpretation

Once the survey questionnaire is designed, pilot it on a few friendly members of the target audience or colleagues.  Their feedback will help you to avoid pitfalls like those above and will also give you a good idea of how long the survey will take people to complete in reality.

Now it’s a case of getting the market at large to respond to the survey.  An important point to remember here is that the decision making unit in business to business markets is often complicated and involves many different roles.  So think carefully about whose opinion you need to seek.  You also need to think long and hard about how to get them to complete the survey.  Business to business decision makers are often hard to reach or protected by gatekeepers.  So ask yourself whether a telephone survey, online survey or even face-to-face survey is likely to work best in your market (oh, and don’t even think about buying in an email list and spamming them – nobody will respond).  Business to business decision makers are usually also time poor and answering your survey on the ‘company clock’.  So think about why they should give you their precious time.  The most powerful incentives here are their goodwill (by virtue of a relationship with your organisation) and a charity donation in exchange for their time.

Finally, once all the data is in, check to see if it’s reliable (i.e. there are sufficient responses to make it statistically robust) and representative (i.e. the distribution of survey responses reflects your market structure).  If not, I suggest you bin the data (or at least interpret the survey results with great caution).

Or of course you could just call in the professionals…

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