How are we doing?

Much like their consumer catalog counterparts, many business-to-business catalogers continually research their markets, contacting customers to see if they’re serving them appropriately. Depending on what they sell, catalogers opt for a variety of methods of customer research.

For instance, according to the 1999 Catalog Age Benchmark Report on Marketing (February issue), 88% of b-to-b respondents use direct mail questionnaires to survey customers, 54% use phone surveys, and 46% make use of focus groups, among other methods.

Moreover, a respectable portion of b-to-b mailers are willing to spend considerable sums on research. For instance, the largest portion of b-to-b respondents to the same survey, 25%, say they spend $25,001-$50,000 a year on market research. By comparison, only 7% of consumer respondents spend $25,001-$50,000 a year; the plurality of consumer respondents (26%) spend less than $2,500 a year on research.

Querying customers Milwaukee-based mailer National Business Furniture spends $40,000-$50,000 a year on various forms of research-though as president/CEO George Mosher points out, “it’s not a strict budget-we sometimes spend more.” The $125 million business furniture cataloger has “moderately” increased the amount of research it conducts over the past few years. For one, National Business Furniture includes questionnaires with first-time customers’ orders to “track over time the degree of happiness they have with our service and the products we sell,” Mosher says. In addition, the company’s phone reps interview customers after they’ve placed orders, “and we get pretty close to 100% participation” in answering questions about their catalog shopping experience. Specifically, “we ask where else customers have considered shopping,” he says.

And the mailer sends out questionnaires to people who requested a catalog but didn’t buy from it. While the results are valuable, “it’s harder to get good information from requesters,” Mosher says. Rounding out its efforts, National Business Furniture conducts customer focus groups every two to four years.

National Hospitality Supply, a $5 million cataloger of hotel/motel and food service supplies, mails out an annual questionnaire to customers and interviews callers placing phone orders, although “most of our customer research really comes from personal experience,” says president/ CEO/owner Michael Hans. “I go out and see a lot of customers through personal interviews. We also get information on customers from lodging and hotel management magazines. And from our vendors we get information that they obtain from trade shows” on the needs of hotels and other lodges.

Because National Hospitality serves mainly lodges with fewer than 100 rooms, “we have good relationships with customers over the phone. Smaller lodges tend to remember our people better, because bigger chains have more turnover. So when they place orders, they don’t hang up immediately but are more willing to talk, and often request or suggest items from us,” says Hans, who doesn’t maintain a set research budget.

Culver City, CA-based educational materials cataloger Social Studies School Service prefers in-person customer research, says director of marketing Aaron Willis. “At trade shows, we talk to people, asking them what we can do better. We find face-to-face contact is the best way to get information about their needs.”

Aside from the 15 education-oriented trade shows the company attends annually, “I go out and talk to teachers myself and encourage them to use our free services,” Willis says. For instance, Social Studies School Service presents complete lesson plans on its Website, recommending books that it sells. By posting an array of teaching aids and course curriculums, the cataloger encourages teachers to view the online catalog and place orders, he says.

While Willis admits his company does minimal formal customer research and has no funds set aside for research, “we’re starting to think of some things to do, particularly with our e-mail list. We have all these addresses of people who subscribe to our e-mail newsletter, and I’d like to send them questionnaires.”

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