Editor's note: Tom Cates is president of The Brookeside Group, an Acton, Mass., consulting company. He can be reached at 978-266-9876. This article appeared in the August 13, 2012, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter. 

The idea of do-it-yourself (DIY) survey research is not new. For years, researchers have been using various tools to conduct customer-facing surveys, providing companies with insight to help improve their client relationships. Fast-forward to 2012 and social media and similar technologies are creating exponentially more opportunities in client-based research, giving companies more tools and more information than they could ever utilize.

With these new opportunities come new challenges and, too often, researchers simply aren't equipped with the knowledge and tools required to derive real value from client research.


Don't ask yourself whether you should perform client-based research (you absolutely should). Ask yourself instead how you can do the best possible DIY research for your company, which includes knowing the dangers of the DIY approach and when it's time to call in the pros.


Benefits of DIY research


DIY research is often seen as a viable short-term alternative to full-fledged market research projects, especially when budget is constrained. 




For many companies, the primary benefit of DIY research is convenience. If you're simply looking for quick feedback on a few straightforward topics that do not require much analysis, you can use a basic online tool such as SurveyMonkey.




If you're the person in charge of conducting survey methodology and analysis, you will gain a firsthand, in-depth understanding of your clients' needs and how to best meet them. This benefit can also have a notable downside in that your clients may be unwilling to truly open up to their day-to-day contact at the company - you.




Cost-savings is often touted as another benefit of the DIY survey approach. Depending on how in-depth the survey is and the number of questions asked, you could be looking at no additional cost aside from time spent creating it. Step it up a notch with more questions and customizable features and you're still not looking at budget-breaking numbers. If you're a small business or don't need serious data, a DIY survey is the ticket.


Dangers of a DIY approach


A carefully-crafted DIY research project can deliver important insights. However, a DIY approach has some potential downsides. These challenges threaten data quality and ultimately, your target objectives.


Wasted data


DIY surveys run the risk of failing to connect survey questions to organizational objectives. Ideally, every aspect of the survey should deliver data for making specific business decisions and accomplishing clearly-articulated organizational goals. Many DIY surveys are populated with random questions that the organization wants answered or thinks should be asked, even though those questions aren't linked to business objectives.


Flawed results


DIY surveys can contain fundamental flaws that reverberate throughout data analysis and decision-making. If your research fails to deliver the necessary insights, or worse yet, delivers inaccurate results, important decisions could be made based on faulty information. When creating DIY surveys, people often forget to keep the end in mind.


Account managers taking a DIY approach should be aware of the effect their personal connection to the client could have on survey responses. A client who has a longstanding relationship with the account manager will likely be hesitant to disclose negative elements of his or her interaction with the company. Consider opting for an independent third party - or even another individual within the organization - to ensure meaningful responses.


Poorly-crafted questions


When it comes to survey mechanics, question phrasing can be another stumbling block for DIY researchers. Even when the meaning of specific questions may seem obvious, survey participants will struggle to respond to questions that are vague, unclear or imprecise. It's important to accurately match the type of question (e.g. open-ended vs. Likert scale [strongly disagree through strongly agree]) to the information you're attempting to uncover and the nature of the survey. Shortcomings in question phrasing and structure will inevitably translate into muddled client responses.


Alienated clients


One of the more serious pitfalls of DIY research is the possibility that your research tools or methodology might alienate clients. If the survey is highly repetitive, fails to value the participants' time or reinforces negative stereotypes, DIY surveys can inflict serious damage on client relationships and ultimately, your bottom line. Although you may see the survey as going above and beyond, your client may think otherwise.


Call in the pros 


Researchers need to understand that DIY research is not a panacea. Although technology has extended the ability to capture meaningful client insights, there are still many scenarios that call for professional research expertise. In fact, knowing when it's time to call in the pros can be the determining factor in the quality and effectiveness of your entire research agenda.


Ask yourself: What am I trying to accomplish with this survey? What data do I need to collect and why? Those questions should be among the first you ask yourself when starting the survey process. If you're serious about gaining additional insight into problem areas and identifying unknown issues, call in the pros. They'll have databases of tried-and-true questions that produce the responses and data you need.


Likewise, if you want to dig deep and are unsure if your clients will answer your survey truthfully, calling in a third party will eliminate any uneasiness your client may feel. In turn, you may find the results are more honest.


As the stakes go up, the limits of DIY research become more apparent. When companies want to find solutions to long-term problems or require very specific, actionable insights, it becomes important to outsource research to a professional. In addition to providing end-to-end management of the research process, the pros offer expertise in data analysis and other critical aspects of client surveys.


An important part of the research process involves the transformation of data into targeted actions. In addition to optimizing data collection, qualified research organizations can help you translate findings into actions and business outcomes that will benefit both you and your clients.


Best practices in DIY research


If you choose to adopt a DIY approach, you'll assume responsibility for the integrity of survey methodology, including the integration of several best practices into the DIY research process.


  1. Survey purpose. The first step in successful research is to consider how you will use the survey results. Be prepared to address any issues or weaknesses that are raised in the survey because clients will expect you to make corrective improvements based on the results.
  2. Strategic segmentation. One of the most dangerous mistakes in DIY research is to try to accomplish too much in a single survey. It isn't necessary to survey your entire client base or cover every possible research angle in a single survey vehicle. Instead, break surveys up into manageable segments that will make it easier for the team to translate results into actions.
  3. Participation rates. Participation rates can make or break the success of DIY surveys. If possible, it's helpful to introduce surveys to clients in person rather than using an e-mail blast. Another strategy to boost participation is to conduct the survey via phone or in face-to-face meetings, recognizing that the price of higher participation will be an additional time investment. If you send a survey out via e-mail, include a status bar. Having an end in sight will boost participation.
  4. Types of questions. Most DIY surveys should include a combination of Likert scale and open-ended questions. While Likert scale questions reveal participants' attitudes or feelings about specific issues, open-ended questions provide qualitative data that can be invaluable to you. When possible, avoid using "neutral" as a response option. Make your client pick a side. Additionally, provide a comment section at the end so they can address anything they weren't able to during the survey.
  5. Analysis and averages. Keeping in mind that the goal of DIY research should always be actionable insights, the most effective research mechanisms are often one-to-one surveys. Research that delivers results in the form of averages has limited value because it may not deliver actionable results. For example, a survey showing that a third of your clients find your ordering process cumbersome isn't nearly as useful as one revealing that your largest client is struggling to adapt to your new Web-based ordering solution. A good rule of thumb is that even though averages can be helpful, surveys that deliver granular, one-to-one results can make it easier to attach targeted actions to your research.

Best served by a combination


In the end, most researchers discover that their agenda is best served by a combination of DIY and outsourced, professional research opportunities. The quick feedback that can be achieved through DIY surveys can be a great lead-in to the deep insights and solutions to long-term problems that can be accomplished with a professional client management provider.