Market questionnaires are a form of quantitative, primary market research that can provide small business owners with specific information about their customers' needs. Whether conducted over the telephone, through the mail, over the Internet, or in person, market questionnaires are designed to survey a sample group of respondents whose opinions reflect those of the business's target customers.
Like other forms of market research, questionnaires are designed to connect marketers to consumers through information gathering and evaluation. Market research is commonly used to identify marketing problems and opportunities, as well as to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of marketing strategies. Small business owners, because of their usually limited financial resources, have a particular need for adequate, accurate, and current information to aid them in making decisions. Market research can help entrepreneurs evaluate the feasibility of a start-up venture before investing a great deal of time and capital, for example, as well as assist them in effectively marketing their goods and services.
"Questionnaire construction is one of the most difficult steps in marketing research, " Gloria Green and Jeffrey Williams noted in their book Marketing: Mastering Your Small Business. "Yet, many people seem to think putting together a good questionnaire is easy. That's why there are so many terrible questionnaires—full of confusing or incomprehensible questions all but guaranteed to produce worthless results."
In general, a good market questionnaire will consist of a screening or qualifying question, an introduction, demographic questions, closed-ended questions, and open-ended questions. Each of these elements serves a particular purpose. The screening question, which should usually be posed first, makes sure that the respondent is a member of the target group and thus is qualified to participate in the survey. For example, a home remodeling and repair company might ask whether the person has had any work done in the previous six months. The introduction then informs qualified respondents what company is conducting the survey and why, and explains the benefits answering might have on their future business relationship with that company. Demographic questions—which cover such basic information as age, gender, marital status, education level, income level, etc.—allow the business to categorize responses. Since some respondents may be hesitant to answer such personal questions, demographics should usually be addressed near the end of the questionnaire.
Closed-ended questions ask respondents to select from a limited set of answers. This enables businesses to collate responses and analyze results more easily. Closed-ended questions may require a "yes" or "no, " or "true" or "false" answer. They may also be set up as a multiple-choice question, so that respondents choose one possible answer from a list. Finally, closed-ended questions may involve a scaled response, such as rating a product or service on a scale of one to ten or on the basis of categories such as "strongly like, " "like, " "neither like nor dislike, " etc. In contrast, open-ended questions enable respondents to provide a more lengthy response in their own words. Although open-ended questions can provide valuable information, the results can also be difficult for companies to analyze and categorize.
According to Green and Williams, there are a number of guidelines small business owners should follow in order to create good market questionnaires that are likely to produce meaningful responses. First, the survey should be as short as possible and collect only necessary information. Second, questions should be clearly worded and concise, without excessive technical jargon. Third, questions should be objective, so that they do not imply a correct answer. Fourth, questions should be limited so that they only seek one piece of information, and answers fall into distinct categories. Finally, questionnaires should be arranged so that they begin with easier questions and progress into more difficult ones after a measure of trust has been achieved. It may be helpful to test a market questionnaire on a small group and then make any necessary refinements before using it in a large-scale market research effort.