In order for your business to innovate and thrive, understanding what your most valuable clients think and need is vital.

But high level executives and senior managers don’t have the time or inclination to take part in surveys – even if you actually manage to fend off the gate keepers and make it to their inboxes. Frustratingly, the people whose opinions matter the most and whose perceptions can make or break your business are the least likely to engage with your research.

So, how do you tackle the seemingly herculean task of finding out what smart, busy, high level managers think about your products or services?

Here’s five things to consider before conducting your research with senior executives:

1. Know your audience and establish rapport

  • Don’t just ask for a bunch of information from them, use language that provides context, speaks directly to the user and presents questions as an opportunity for participants to provide valuable insight.
  • Treat it as an important opportunity to start a two-way conversation that you can both benefit from, a way of building a valuable relationship. Show how their input will be used to improve the service or product you provide, and how they will ultimately benefit.
  • Make it unique, personalised, interactive and well thought out.
  • Consider sending the survey request from an equivalent senior level in your organisation – you’ll create the feeling of an exclusive club and the sense of a high level conversation amongst peers.

2. Aim to get the whole story – not just the answers

It’s a good mantra to live by when conducting any research, but particularly with senior level executives where it’s crucial to get the deep insight this opportunity can yield. While online surveys are an efficient and streamlined approach to engaging with executives there are other options that might be better suited to this group.

Having a research specialist interview (rather than survey) a small number of executive customers separately and in person can be invaluable in terms of building relationships and providing the kind of meaty, useful and actionable insight you’re looking for. Interviews are particularly useful because:

  • They allow the researcher to uncover insights that underlie the facts and outcomes
  • They provide a greater opportunity to clarify questions and follow-up on answers, allowing the interviewer to capture examples, and stories, and collect feedback on ideas you might not have thought of before
  • Participants might actually prefer a short face-to-face meeting or phone call to express their views
  • Buy-in can sometimes be greater as executives are inclined to see it as more important

3. What’s it worth?

Top level executives aren’t likely to be enticed by a relatively small amount of money or other commonly offered incentives. Plus, they may actually be prohibited from accepting incentives. Other options might be better:

  • A donation to a charity, especially one they or the company has a personal connection with
  • Offer to share the research findings – this is industry intelligence that’s relatively difficult to come by so has a unique value

4. Timing is everything

Particularly in terms of online surveys, make it quick, easy and mobile optimised. Senior level executives tend to travel more, move quickly and, of course are especially pressed for time.

  • Use design and language to create the easiest most efficient experience for users
  • Consider the best day of the week and time of day to send the survey. In some cases it might be more appropriate to send on a Saturday when there’s more time to complete it and less competing email traffic. Run tests, and adapt your approach depending on response rates on different days and times of day.

5. Design with the end in mind

A well-designed research process will get the answers needed, so spend some time making sure you’re targeting the right people and have the right research staff involved.

  • Ensure it (in the case of a survey) reaches the right people at the right level and that they’re asked the right questions – you only have one shot at getting this right. Tangible outcomes are vital – there has to be a “so what” that comes from your research data and that is highly dependent on your questions
  • Agree on your targets – information from the people who report directly to the most senior executives in an organisation can sometimes be useful as well
  • Employ the right research professional to conduct the research – someone who has some business nous, and can flag issues where they see them.

Using the right techniques, language, approach, timing and incentives can encourage greater uptake among this important target group.

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