Sat, Jun

Customer surveys: are they worth it?

With so many print companies diversifying into new and/or changed markets, the question has got to be asked: how valid are customer surveys and are they worth undertaking?

Signs Express managing director Craig Brown for one, would say “yes”. Having recently commissioned an independent survey of 1,000 SMEs across the UK, in an attempt to understand their attitudes towards signs and graphics and establish their future needs, he believes it has been a valuable exercise.

 “SMEs make up a very large proportion of our customer base. We wanted to differentiate ourselves from other sign companies by working to understand the needs of SMEs and showing that we are committed to delivering an added-value service that can help them succeed,” says Brown.

“We decided that a survey would enable us to get closer to our customers. We particularly wanted to find out what they think of suppliers and customer service, both in general terms and with regards to the supply of signs and graphics. We were also interested to know if buying local is important for our customers and what kind of factors influence their buying decisions - such as price and quality.”

Signs Express has over 75 production centres across the UK and Ireland and small scale in-depth focus groups were organised at several, but Brown also felt it crucial that a representative sample of its customers took part in the survey.

“A key aim of the survey was to generate statistics that would be of interest to the media; providing content for a PR campaign that would increase brand recognition and awareness of our business. It was essential that we had a strong story to tell. Once the survey had been collated, we focused on the strongest statistics and created a series of targeted press releases which we issued to national, regional and trade press,” adds Brown.

That’s a strategy that has obviously paid off! But on the whole, has the return on investment justified the cost of the survey? “Whilst we could have undertaken a smaller-scale, and therefore less costly, in-house survey, we decided to commission an independent, specialist research agency to work with us. Using a specialist research company gave our survey more gravitas and credibility,” says Brown.

He adds: “It is difficult to quantify return on investment at this stage, as the research findings will be used to inform much of our future marketing activity and franchise development activity. The hope is that we will make better use of our marketing expenditure and focus our training and sales messages to the network - whilst also enhancing our understanding of our customers’ motivations. This will ultimately help us with setting our business goals.”

Asked exactly what was involved in creating the survey and whether it was a particularly time-consuming process, Brown explains: “The marketing team at Signs Express HQ worked closely with third party specialists to ensure that the survey questions were fair and objective, and that the project was completed within the agreed timeframe.
“We also needed the full support and co-operation of each of our franchise sign production centres, to ensure as many of their customers as possible were motivated to take part. All our production centres were very excited about the survey and delighted to be involved. In turn it’s really helped them with their own marketing.

So how did the network choose exactly who to survey? “We wanted to concentrate the survey on SMEs, as they form the majority of our customer base – and they are facing a hard time in the recession. We specifically targeted those who were involved in the decision making process of choosing suppliers. This was a pre-qualification question,” answers Brown.

“We also added the questionnaire to our website and promoted it via social media sites. Franchisees also promoted it locally through their customer bases. We could have bought in data, but decided not to do this because of the quality issue.”

So down to the nitty gritty – did the survey findings support Sign Express’s understanding of its customers’ needs?
“Overall, yes,” says Brown. “The survey revealed that 75% of SMEs prefer to buy local, which means that local businesses are really focused on supporting their local economy. This confirmed what we already know from the feedback we get from our centres. The survey also supported the fact that our customers value expertise and advice from suppliers when it comes to choosing a signage solution.”

In which case, wasn’t it all a waste of time and money? After all, it’s good to have data to support what your gut is already telling you, but could better use have been made of the resources? Brown thinks not.

“The survey revealed some intriguing statistics – some quite surprising and even shocking ones. For example, the fact that, nationally, nearly half of the businesses we surveyed reported being let down by suppliers unable to answer their questions or which didn’t come back to them with a quote as promised. Other businesses had also been put off by ‘hard sell’ tactics.

“In a recession, it is surprising that so many suppliers are behaving in this unprofessional and unhelpful way and driving away custom. I believe that to help economic recovery, suppliers need to stop letting potential clients down; if they don’t step up and work harder to improve service their businesses could fail – and that will mean even more people out of work. For Signs Express, service is a top priority and it is both surprising and disappointing that many suppliers don’t seem to share our attitude.

“The survey also revealed that, despite a challenging economy, a vast proportion of SMEs still believe that price is not the most important factor when it comes to selecting a print supplier. They said that if they believe they are getting good value and service, price is not the top priority.

“And there was some really good news for our industry - the vast proportion of those questioned said that a sign is still a vital part of how they market their business – second only to having a website. In today’s digital age, this shows that the traditional sign is still holding its own, which is great news going forward.”

Post survey, and armed with the data that actually shows some pretty standard wide-format print applications as being rather low on the ‘must have’ list when it comes to the promotional spend of the SMEs polled, is there now an opportunity for Sign Express to change the participants’ perception of print, especially wide-format?

“We believe wide-format print is an integral part of signage and it’s a popular element of our product portfolio – especially vehicle graphics,” says Brown. “Through our communication with customers, and the use of high quality vinyls and durable printing methods, we can show wide-format prints as long term sign solutions onto a variety of substrates.

“Almost all Signs Express centres have their own wide-format digital printer and some are now investing in a second to cope with demand. Others are reinvesting in new machinery as their first machine reaches the end of its life. We have a strong supplier network and franchisees can assist one another when demand requires. We also have a number of franchisees who have invested in Rolls Roller machines, which help with applying print, particularly with very large-format graphics.”

Summing up the survey experience Brown says: “This was the first time we have undertaken a survey on this scale, but we are planning to develop our business in 2012, so this presented an ideal opportunity to take a really in-depth look at our target market, to help us formulate our strategy going forward into the mid-to long term.
“The survey will definitely help to shape our future business direction. Having a clear picture of businesses’ attitudes to suppliers is incredibly valuable. Our franchisees have been very excited to hear the results and it has been a really positive experience for them.

“We have been very pleased with the take-up and results of the survey and we plan to do another one next year – perhaps on an even bigger scale. It will be interesting to track results from our questions and add a few new ones.
“Signs Express has been established for over 20 years but we know that we cannot rest on our laurels. We need continuously to seek ways to improve our service to customers.”

Signs Express National Business Survey headline results:


To what extent are signs, graphics and displays an important part of your company's marketing activity?

Very important


Quite important


Neither important nor unimportant


Not very important


Not at all important


In your opinion, what are the most important signs for your business?

Main exterior/fascia sign


Vehicle graphics


Exhibition displays


Entrance gate signs


Health & Safety signs




Promotional posters/billboards


Window graphics


Directional/way-finding signs


Reception signs


Labels and stickers


Door signs


Point of sale displays


Notice boards


Don't know


None of these





If you were marketing a business from scratch and could only buy three of the following, which would they be? Select a maximum of three options:

A website


An exterior sign


A printed brochure/leaflets


Vehicle graphics


Online advertising


A one-week press advertising campaign


A one-week radio advertising campaign


An exhibition banner


A Yellow Pages advert


A 2-week billboard poster campaign



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