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Michael Casey

Quality Insider

Surveying New Opportunities

Giving exactly what customers want

Published: Monday, April 6, 2009 - 13:31


ince 1979, an automotive-parts manufacturer had one premier product that is used by automakers such as General Motors, Toyota, Ford, Honda, Mercedes, and Daimler-Chrysler. For competitive reasons, this business didn’t want to share their name for this article.


In May 2008, the company conducted a survey to help the product-development team, which was considering branching out to make another automotive product. They wanted to solicit customer input to verify that their design direction would meet customers' needs. By designing a targeted customer survey, the operations, engineering, and maintenance departments gathered eye-opening customer feedback that led to several significant design changes that better aligned the new product with customers' priorities.

The survey process also identified customers to test prototypes, identified a set of possible early adopters, uncovered several sales opportunities, and created a sense of goodwill toward the company among customers. In general, online surveying yields are much higher than paper-based surveys and much more cost-effective than phone-based research. While there are times when these other two surveying methods make sense, the approach here was to start with a low-cost online survey and then to follow up with phone conversations to clarify answers and expand where appropriate.

The response rate on this survey was 53 percent, included very detailed explanations of what the engineers wanted to see in the new product, the investment was less than $5 per completed survey, and the information came directly from customers, eliminating possible errors or bias.

The challenge

The company was incorporated in the early 1960’s to develop and commercialize the then-new technology. The company focused its efforts on commercial and consumer products and in 1979, introduced the automotive part that’s still a mainstay of their product lineup. Their product has become the standard of excellence throughout the automotive world and is sold directly to every major automaker.

A few years ago, they began looking at other parts they could expand into while leveraging their expertise and customer engineering relationships. One area seemed to be a natural fit, and their engineering team had some ideas on how they would design such a part, but they wanted some customer input before they committed to a design direction.

A survey was the logical way to accomplish the task. They started by having their field salespeople in Detroit ask automotive manufacturers what they wanted in the new part they were considering. The process was very slow, however, and information from conversations was difficult to quantify, so they began to look for outside help and direction.

The campaign

The concept of a formalized outsourced survey was a new one for the company, which has a strong do-it-yourself culture. But the product development team realized that while they had the technical competence to build a survey, they needed outside expertise to ensure the survey produced unbiased results. There was also a sense within the company that with more than 25 years experience in the market, they were already well in touch with customer needs. But they couldn't be absolutely certain that they were going in the right direction until they heard directly from their customers.

They worked with Survey Advantage to design the survey questions and began the process of compiling customer e-mail addresses, which until then, they hadn’t collected on a regular basis. They gathered 81 e-mail addresses for the most influential engineers within their customer base and 43 filled out the survey.

On the day the survey launched, feedback began rolling in, and the development team was able to see the results as they were tabulated. Responses were eye-opening. As an example, more than 90 percent (39) of the respondents felt that it was a wise decision to develop the new product and 80 percent (35) wanted a prototype when available. This confirmed they had a great chance of taking out the competition. The engineering team was surprised that there were two aspects of the design that weren’t as important as originally thought: noise level and weight of the product.

The results

The survey results prompted them to do more than just fine-tune the new design; they led them to make some major functional changes. In the words of the product development team, “We were overengineering it.” As a result of the feedback, they reduced the costs by eliminating unnecessary features and got below the competition’s pricing. Feedback from the user's prospective gave them an entirely new set of insights. It was powerful to have the customers' own words to guide development.   

While customer feedback gave them a clear mandate on the new design, it also provided a number of unexpected benefits. Several customers commented that they were impressed by their refreshingly proactive approach in asking for their design input. In addition, the survey asked customers if they would like to evaluate a prototype of the product, and 80 percent indicated that they would, providing the company a ready list of testers and possible early implementers. Other customers asked that they contact them, about either the new product or other issues, alerting the company to opportunities.

The original plan was to win business for the 2011 and 2012 automobile models. As of March 2009, the product was fully designed and they had just sent out more than 200 samples to customers for evaluation. As a pleasant surprise, the auto-manufacturer engineers were considering the product for 2010 models due to product quality from current suppliers. The long-term goal is to sell millions of units, but they say that even one manufacturer adopting the product would result in 50,000 to 100,000 units. With two patents pending on the new design, company management feels confident they can duplicate their leadership position within this new product as well.

The lessons

Never assume you know what your customers want. Gathering unbiased, valid input directly from customers is the only way to truly understand their interests and priorities. High quality feedback also puts the team on the same page with respect to focusing on the customer.

Surveying is an effective marketing tool. Having a no-pressure means of communicating with customers opens lines of communication, creates goodwill, and generates opportunities.


About The Author

Michael Casey’s picture

Michael Casey

Michael Casey is president and founder of Survey Advantage (www.surveyadvantage.com). Prior to starting Survey Advantage in 2001 he helped American Power Conversion grow from a $2 million business in 1987 to a $1.8 billion business by 2000. As Global Director of Service, Michael was responsible for capturing, analyzing and acting on customer feedback to reinforce ISO 9000 and Baldrige quality standards. Survey Advantage’s mission is to help businesses improve their business performance through the delivery of cost-effective, comprehensive customer feedback systems and easy-to-digest reports. Michael sits on several boards, is a frequent speaker at association conventions, and writes monthly case studies for several industry publications. Michael can be reached at mcasey@surveyadvantage.com.