Confessions of a Pollster: Why You Need Survey Research On Your VMO

Published: March 7, 2017

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Confession: I used to be a pollster.

After the 2016 election, it’s not something one talks about at cocktail parties. Pollsters were the biggest villains of the 2016 election season (well, right behind the villainy of whichever candidate you disliked most). The problem is that we usually think about polling or opinion research or surveys as being so unreliable that they can’t offer much value. Mark Twain is supposed to have complained about “Lies, damn lies and statistics.” Nonetheless, surveys can help facilitate change efforts like adoption of value selling practices. What follows here is my thinking about why we need surveys and some tactical advice on how to use surveys. 

You may not consider promoting value conversations as a “change effort.” It’s not like shifting the company’s engineering method to devops or a new budgeting prioritization method. But for sales teams, putting customer value at the center may be a very big change from how they get the job done today. We may argue that sales teams will gravitate toward value conversations out of self-interest or because of a corporate mandate. But that won’t ensure they really get on board. We often resist what we know is good for us (e.g., improving our diet, getting enough sleep, exercising).

The good news is this: when we look at the value conversation as a change effort, we get access to tools and techniques that can make the difference in success.

Business writer William Bridges, who literally wrote the book on transitions, noted that change requires saying sometimes painful goodbyes to our ways and habits, a letting go of the familiar. For sales people considering value selling, saying goodbye to familiar paths to success carries real financial risk. The security of their jobs and the welfare of their families are at stake. If a transition is to be successful, we have to understand how to motivate and to energize people through the difficult times. They have to be deeply convinced that of the value for themselves in taking on the transition.

How to Design a Survey

Tools like the VMO platform and SFDC can give us lots of data, counts and observations. But without a survey the most important information remains trapped inside the minds and experiences of our sales teams and users. To really get at the information we need, you want to design a survey that provides diagnostic, prognostic and demographic data.

  1. Diagnostic Data

As a diagnostic tool, we use surveys to ask questions like:

  • How often are you using the VMO?
  • How important is the VMO to you in your engagements?
  • How likely are you to recommend a colleague use the VMO? (a Net Promoter Score™ construct)

Responses to questions like these are akin to the instrument panel on your car. They give you a sense of how well the machine is running and whether you have immediate threat of catastrophic malfunction. So the diagnostic data is important and offers important insight into the state of acceptance of the value conversation effort. This diagnostic data is the first use for survey data.

  1. Prognostic Data

The second use for survey data is in helping us chart a path forward — the prognostic, strategic use of surveys. What we’re looking for here are questions that will give users opportunities to describe the inhibitors they face to using value conversation methods more deeply. We want to understand what changes, enhancements and adjustments we can make to facilitate use of value selling methods.

As a prognostic tool, we use questions that probe a little deeper, often as “open-ended” follow ups to diagnostic questions. For example:

  • What keeps you from using the VMO more frequently?
  • What would make you more likely to recommend the VMO (e.g., in conjunction with NPS questions)
  • What one change in the VMO that would make it easier for you to use the VMO in your next customer conversation?

These questions are the meat of the survey. This is where strategy emerges from your survey. Responses help you identify recurring themes and opportunities. Read carefully, these responses can help us discern more effective ways to describe and to position our efforts. Responses to open-ended questions can also help you refine follow up surveys.

  1. Demographic Data

You’ll want to round out your survey design with a small number of “demographic” questions to allow subgroup comparisons. You don’t need age and education information here; you want information related to how your team is structured, for example:

  • In what country or geography are you based?
  • Are you in management or front line?
  • How long have you been with the company?

Demographic questions serve two purposes. First demographics allow you to validate whether your responses adequately reflect your user base. If your audience is 20% Asia based and 80% rest of world, but your survey reflects 80% response rates from Asia, you’ll want to either take steps to resolve that discrepancy (either by using statistical weighting methods, or by recruiting additional responses from under-represented subgroups), or else qualify your analysis.  And second, demographic questions facilitate deeper analysis, allowing you to “cross-tabulate” — to compare differences in responses among subgroups. I might for example want to compare adoption by new employees in the US against long term employees in Europe.

A quick word on the bounty of outstanding tools for surveys. Survey Monkey, Surveygizmo, and Qualtrics are some of the big names. I personally like Surveygizmo for its balance of pricing, features and capabilities, ease of use, and analysis / reporting tools. These services have the same basic core features. Any one of them may suit your needs, especially if your organization already has an enterprise account with one of the services.

Getting actionable data doesn’t require universal response rates. If you can motivate response rates of even as low as 10-20%, you may have actionable data. We’re not trying to predict the outcome of a presidential election within a percentage point of precision. We’re trying to learn a little about the environment we face in order to navigate it with less risk. The magical thing about Bayesian statistics is that with even the smallest amount of data, we can reduce uncertainty and increase confidence in your action plans.

Evangelizing the value conversation is a leadership challenge. Stephen Covey said that leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves. Why not add survey research as a tool to help you become a better leader?

About the Author

Tom Quillin

Tom Quillin

Tom Quillin, CTO Security Economics, leads efforts for Intel Security to measure and quantify opportunities for IT organizations to improve security effectiveness while operating more efficiently. Tom previously led strategic planning for security capabilities integrated into Intel’s silicon products. Since joining Intel in 1998, Tom has served in many industry-facing roles with the goal of helping other companies get the most value from buying Intel technology and from collaborating with Intel. Beyond Intel Tom enjoys spending time with his family, hiking and camping in the Pacific Northwest, and volunteering education-related efforts, including having served for seven years on the Board of Directors for Oregon’s third largest school district. Prior to joining Intel, Tom helped establish and grow a consulting firm focused on using survey research as a foundation for strategy development. Tom earned his undergraduate degree at University of Iowa and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.