Over four years ago when the Grand Valley economy started to go south I began getting questions about how local businesses were being affected and how they viewed what was happening. Trying to accurately reflect what over 1,000 predominately small business owners and managers were thinking was a daunting task. Then it occurred to me to actually ask them. That was when the first local business economic outlook survey was launched in the fall of 2007.
I have sometimes been referred to as the “survey queen” but I find real value is doing short, objective surveys aimed at getting people to tell me what they think. I’m not alone. How many of you in just the past week were handed a receipt with a website address for a short survey? Be it the grocery store, the department store or the restaurant, many chain businesses are offering small incentives to just ask you a few questions.
Local small businesses can also use this tool effectively. With the advent of social media and low-cost survey options like Zoomerang and Survey Monkey it is easy to design your own surveys and get customer and prospective customers about your service and product. In fact, most people appreciate being asked even if they don’t take the time to complete the actual survey itself.
But there is also a real art to doing surveys. I prefer the straightforward, ten questions or less multiple choice variety with lots of room for comments. And, while it may be tempting sometimes, I do not try and impart information or shape opinions with a survey. A survey is most valuable (and usually has greater return rate) when it is used to LISTEN. When I am the survey respondent I actually resent pollsters who try to get me to change my answer on a topic. Nothing gets my goat more than a question that starts with “after knowing what you know now…” The Chamber typically sees a 15 to 20% return rate with our electronic surveys which is better than most similar surveys.
I also think it is important to honor someone’s time and share a survey’s results with those who answer the questions. Often I share the results with our entire membership or the community. In that vein, here are some of the preliminary numbers from our latest economic outlook survey conducted earlier this month with Chamber members and how they compare to past surveys.
- Local business perceptions are that the national economy is actually weaker than it was six months ago when the previous survey was conducted. 87% view it weak or extremely weak now compared to 74%. A year ago the outlook was basically the same with 88% indicating weak or extremely weak.
- Closer to home, 76% view our local economy as weak or extremely weak-basically unchanged from the spring survey at 77%-but still better than November of 2010 when 84% saw it as weak or extremely weak.
- Consumer confidence garners the number one spot for factors that will influence businesses in the next six months with 44% of the responses in this most recent survey. Perceptions of the weak economy and regulation were the next most often cited respectively. That is basically unchanged from one year ago but fears about energy prices dominated the spring survey coming in a close second to consumer confidence.
- When asked about changes to company sales for the next six months the answers were basically unchanged from six months ago, with most expecting them to stay the same (51%), 35% expecting an increase and 15% expecting a decrease.
- 70% of respondents expect employment levels to stay the same for the next six months, 17% expect to increase employment levels and 14% expect to decrease employment levels. That is basically unchanged from last spring but still better than one year ago when 20% expected there would be additional decreases in employment.
- Optimism slipped a bit from last spring in this latest survey. Only 24% were more optimistic than six months ago, 26% were less optimistic than a year ago and 50% remained unchanged.
- When survey respondents expect the local economy will begin to recover continues to slip farther into the future. On this most recent survey 51% expect it is a year or more away selecting late 2012 or 2013. More than one in five (22%) expect it will be 2014 or later. Last year the expectation was that we would see the recovery begin in mid to late 2011 (425) followed by early 2012 (24%). Last spring the expectation was sometime in 2012 (41%) and 17% thought it had already begun.
Now when someone asks me about the local business perspective on the economy all I have to do is pull out the numbers. I also know that I am accurately reflecting the business perspective.