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We're all for it, but

Aug 1, 2006 12:00 AM

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There has been a growing appreciation of the value of understanding customers' perceptions of a particular print company. It's dangerous to devise a business plan without first having feedback about customer plans, needs, and perceptions. Many readers of this column will agree. The idea of actually conducting a survey, however, evokes fear and loathing on the part of some owners and managers who have never had experience with a well-conducted customer survey.

Struggling with surveys. The objective of a survey is the truth, not necessarily feedback that is complimentary. Results never should be seen as good or bad. They reflect “what is.” Also, surveys never should be viewed as a subtle device to promote sales. For that and other reasons, surveys should be conducted by third parties with experience in business-to-business research.

We see three common reactions to the suggestion that a customer survey of the entire account base is needed. The first is that every graphic arts company has a handful of customers whom, it is strongly suspected, are graduates of the Marquis de Sade School of Charm. These customers are considered to be downright nasty; their feedback is feared.

The second is that some owners and managers respond to the suggestion of a well-run customer survey with, “We're already doing research. A comment card is enclosed with every job we ship.” Job comment cards serve only a very limited purpose. The subject matter is confined to production of a job and does not address critical long-term issues such as buyer-seller relationship, the reason(s) the buying organization does business with a supplier, products and services needed by the customer, and buyer perceptions of areas of competitive strengths and weaknesses.

In a commoditized environment, it is dangerous for a print company to assume that the delivery of a first-rate job provides a competitive advantage in securing the customer's next job. A successful job does not entitle a supplier to the next job. In the current business climate, it might simply entitle the supplier to compete for the next job. A job comment card will not generate the strategic information needed by a print company.

The third reaction is, “We're already getting everything from our existing customers and our accounts love us, so why don't we survey former accounts?” The notion that there's little more to be sold to customers is absurd. It assumes that the print company can't expand its offering of products and services. It assumes that a salesperson can only capture, not create, demand. The extent to which customers claim to be satisfied might not relate to the extent to which they attach extraordinary value to a relationship with a supplier.

Surveying former accounts is not likely to be a productive exercise. The axiom: “The response rate will be in the low single digits, half of the responses will not be candid, and you won't be able to identify that half.” In a commoditized environment, buyers believe they have choices and have little vested interest in providing a candid response, because good alternatives are available.

It's more than production. Interviews with print buyers reveal a series of reasons for serious dissatisfaction that have little or nothing to do with production issues or jobs but that might lead to the discontinuation of a relationship. Many of these issues never are communicated directly to the print company because they involve personnel matters with which the buyer would rather not become involved. Among issues that are mentioned on anonymous surveys:

  • Body odor and unkempt appearance by delivery personnel.
  • Perceived rudeness by someone in the print company.
  • Sales rep “smells of smoke.”
  • Casual dress on Friday even though the buying organization does not conform to “Casual Friday.”
  • No invitation for a plant tour is extended to a recently-appointed person with buying authority at an existing, high-volume account.

Those who believe they know all the perceptions, needs and attitudes of customers will almost certainly find surprises in feedback from a survey of existing customers. A word of caution: Resist the temptation to confine research to the top tier of customers. Smaller customers might have interesting, valid and helpful observations.

If possible, avoid a survey instrument that is totally or mostly statistical. Suggestions and subtle comments can be very valuable. Include space for volunteered responses to open-ended questions.

Don't fear customer feedback. A leader needs to know the status and value of his or her resources before deploying them to do battle.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. He can be reached at