Doing a little market research for someone right now. Nothing fancy, just an informal Zoomerang survey: 10 questions sent out to about 3,000 customers, offering them a chance at a free lunch if they respond.

Sent the questionnaire to the veep and the head of customer service for approval, and got an immediate grumble: Why were we wasting five of our precious questions on “stuff we already know,” i.e., business size, which of the company’s many products they own, etc…?”

“If that’s what you want, we’ll just ask the database guy make you a report. We capture all that stuff already.”

I reminded them of the difference between reality and perception. Reality–our product info and sales data–vs. customer perception, which is what they really buy when they plunk down a purchase order. The point isn’t duplicating the data in the CRM software, it’s understanding how much of the message actually got through to the customer, and how much of the customer’s message(s) actually get through to us.

Clearly, the company thought I was nuts, but humored me. And when we tabulated the early results, there was some jaw dropping: Some customers couldn’t find their choices on our “which of our products do you own?” question and wrote in a competitor’s product. And their “why buys” weren’t necessarily the ones the company had spent a lot of money pitching.

They’re in the midst of developing 2008 messaging, and my suggestions that we do some customer studies and validate segmentation and user profiles first–i.e., ask the customers what they want–had pretty much fallen on deaf ears. “That stuff is nice,” one product manager said, “but we know our customers and we know what they want. It’s not going to tell us anything we don’t already know.”

50 bucks worth of pizza and a few hours’ time did what weeks of arguing wouldn’t, and opened the door to making customers AND company happy. It is amazing how much you can accomplish by simply asking the customer.

(happy sigh)