You know your products. Here's how to cost-effectively know your market, too.

The old saying is the customer is always right. It's supposed to mean that you should hone your customer service practices. Considered in a different light, it takes on new meaning. How do you know your customers are the right ones? And how do you make sure you have the right mix of products and services?

Market research can help you answer those questions. Gathering data can be complicated, time consuming and expensive. Depending on the level of professional services used, it can cost well into five figures. However, there are lower-cost market research tools you can use on your own. It can be more economical to gather your own data - and you can even enhance your customer relationships at the same time. Here's how and why.

Knowledge is Power

There's a good reason you've located your rural lifestyle business outside a metropolis: You cater to a customer base who enjoy the outdoors. However, recent surveys show rural America is changing. The Carsey Institute's Winter 2012 report on "Winter Demographic Change in the New Century," for example, reports that "racial and ethnic minorities (accounted) for 83% of the rural population growth between 2000 and 2010." And demographic changes mean your customers may be changing, too. Market research will help you understand if strategy changes are needed.

First Things First

First, identify your goals and what you want to learn. The more narrowly you can identify your target consumers, their habits, needs, lifestyles, wants and purchasing decisions, the better marketing decisions you can make. Determine what you want to research by asking these questions:

  • Who are my customers and what are their demographics?
  • Who are my potential customers?
  • What media do they pay attention to?
  • Where else do they shop?

Talk to Customers

Next, consider these low-cost market research tips. You may have already tried direct mail, email campaigns or other marketing methods. However, nothing gathers information like face-to-face conversation. Discover and record customer preferences, demographics and contact information. Special orders are a great way to "data mine," or gather customer information.

Another excellent source of customer information and a fun way to interact is online polling. Several online sites offer free customizable survey templates or budget subscriptions for small businesses. Encourage visitors to fill out customer satisfaction and other surveys, either in-store or online, using sites like or Encourage Facebook and web visitors to fill out surveys and reward their participation with prizes. In a similar fashion, you can invite customers to participate in contests, where they give you contact information and answer questions as part of the contest process.

These techniques will have the dual benefit of encouraging your customers to provide you contact information and awarding their loyalty, thus cementing their relationship with your business.

Associate & Connect

Trade associations and some government organizations exist to help you improve your business with market intelligence. Think about the product lines you carry. Then do searches online for national, state and local associations related to those products and to small businesses in general. The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute and the U.S. Small Business Administration are 2 organizations where you can start your research.

Tap Into Schools

One resource that is often forgotten by business owners looking for marketing help is students. Local community colleges and even high school business clubs frequently need real-world experience. You can benefit by turning your research project into a class project. For example, ask students to conduct in-person surveys on behalf of your dealership.

Do It Yourself

Market research is becoming an increasingly important part of every business. As small businesses compete against conglomerates, knowing who your customers are and where to find them is every bit as important as knowing your product. However, before you invest in expensive analysis tools, try doing your own market research. You've built your business so far. You can do this, too.