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Jan 1, 1997 12:00 AM

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How would you complete the following statement: Conducting a customer satisfaction survey is a good idea because: a) it's a good way to identify new sources of business while strengthening relationships with existing customers; b) this data could help maximize our investment in new technology; c) rumor has it our competitors are doing surveys, so we'd better hop on the bandwagon, too; d) all of the above but "c."

If you chose "d," you're on the right track according to Dallas Dort, a consultant with Michigan-based EKG Research Associates. Dort, whose company is affiliated with the consulting division of the National Assn. of Printers and Lithographers (Teaneck, NJ), maintains that an effective customer satisfaction survey can be a key tool for boosting profits. "The way to make money in the printing business is to know who you are, what you do best and who's going to place the highest value on that," he asserts.

Before conducting a customer satisfaction survey, it's important to determine how the survey will fit into your overall business plan. Dennis Castiglione of Procom Management Group (Solon, OH) serves as a sales and marketing consultant with the Printing Industries of America's Solutions OnSite program. He claims that some organizations, in their eagerness to implement a marketing plan, aren't taking the time to identify their customers' concerns.

"Strategic planning is valuable," he asserts, "but you shouldn't draft your plan until you've formally surveyed your customers. You should understand what their needs are, how their needs have changed, to what level you've satisfied their needs and to what level others are satisfying their needs."

Castiglione cautions, however, that "research for research's sake is of little value. It has to be part of an ongoing improvement process, a greater commitment to customer satisfaction, awareness and appreciation."

Should you conduct the survey yourself? Your answer will depend on several factors: the size of your organization, your marketing resources and the scope of your effort.

John Berthelsen, president of Suttle Press (Waunakee, WI), a $7 million operation, reports that his company prefers using an outside firm for customer surveys. "In previous years, we would do a survey we designed ourselves," he recounts. "We didn't have a super response and there was some question as to how accurate or useful it was. This year, we had a consultant do a survey for us, which we think gives us better information."

Berthelsen adds that using a consultant enables him to tap into a wealth of experience. "Consultants have done all the research and evaluation on how to structure the survey and what kind of questions to ask to get the right kind of information. Plus, they've worked with hundreds of different printing companies that we can benchmark ourselves against."

Some printers that don't conduct regular surveys have found other ways to keep in touch with their clients. "If you don't do a customer satisfaction survey, you should, at the very least, have somebody at a senior level call some randomly selected customers each month," urges Bob MacDonald, a consultant with Strategies for Management, Inc. (Harrisville, RI).

Steve Iwanicki is the sales and marketing director of Johnson Printing Co. (Boulder, CO), which does about $15 million in annual sales. Iwanicki sends out a one-page, pre-paid, self-mailer format questionnaire with most jobs. "We don't want to over-survey people," he explains. "Therefore, we don't survey our customers more frequently than once every six months."

Returned questionnaires are reviewed by the president of the company as well as the respondent's salesperson and customer service representative. Results are published on a quarterly basis for the benefit of the company at large. "We post some of them, too," relates Iwanicki. "We take the good with bad--we post the good comments as well as those featuring less-than-favorable comments."

Although customer satisfaction surveys typically are custom-designed, certain elements have general application. "You want to focus on the areas that are most important to the customer," advises MacDonald. "Typically, customer service, communication and reliability are the biggest issues."

"You should always have an overall question," he continues. "For example 'Overall, how satisfied are you with Company ABC?' That always should start the process off. Next, ask an open-ended question that says, 'Now, explain to me why you're satisfied or dissatisfied?' Then measure individual performance attributes across all of your departments such as sales, production, customer service and administrative. Finally, you should conclude by asking if the person has any suggestions for improving your operation."

"What you really want to find out is how your customers perceive your performance relative to their alternatives to you," adds EKG's Dort. "If you are perceived to be a significantly superior performer, you have a relatively price-insensitive, loyal customer--provided that you stay superior."

Procom's Castiglione offers a four-step overview of the surveying process. First, determine the methodology. Should you conduct the survey by mail or phone? Each has its advantages, claims Castiglione. For example, a mail survey might enable you to ask more questions.

On the other hand, a telephone survey can provide information about respondents' attitudes, in addition to statistical data. Second, select your audience. "If you are simply trying to get an overall read on your entire client base, you might sample every fourth name or something like that," explains Castiglione. "But if you are trying to determine where you stand among your biggest customers, the selection process is quite different."

Third, choose your questions. "You want to be certain that you identify all levels of service your clients could be satisfied or dissatisfied with," submits Castiglione. "Everything from personal contact by salespeople and customer service representatives to the delivery and quality of the product to turnaround time."

Finally, think about timing: When will you conduct your survey? "People may have a totally different attitude in December than in January or June," Castiglione claims. "It's more than just the weather. It's their workload, the kind of experiences with you they've had during that year or during that time frame."

What do you do after the survey has been conducted? Castiglione suggests conducting the survey again in 12 months to 18 months to measure progress. "You've established a benchmark, developed an action plan and begun implementing it. Now you need to know what's changed. It could be that your focus during that first year was improving quality. So, you rolled up your sleeves and did everything you could to improve the quality of your product. But your turnaround time got longer and longer and now you're missing deadlines," explains Castiglione. "If you don't go back a year later, you might think you've corrected all your ills, when in fact you've created a new problem."

One thing seems certain regardless of how you choose to get feedback from your customers: customers' expectations will continue to grow. "It's getting very difficult for printers to keep up with the standard of service our customers are getting in other areas," agrees Howard Harris, president, Eagle Lithographics (Denver, CO). "Federal Express is a good example. You can call them up or go to their Internet site and instantly find your package. How many printers instantly can tell you where your job is? How many printers can absolutely, positively guarantee a delivery date?"

"The bottom line is your customer is your business," concurs Strategies for Management's MacDonald. "You've got to stay as close to your customers as possible."

For more information, please refer to the illustration on page 26 of the January 1997 American Printer.