IT executives increasingly implement marketing initiatives to improve the communications with their business customers. But these efforts often focus solely on the brand aspects of the services under the IT's control without understanding the business' perception of IT.

To maximize the success, IT must add business satisfaction assessments to its tool kit. Understanding business satisfaction requires qualitative and quantitative data that capture customer expectations and perceptions through different types of interactions such as interviews, panels, complaint systems and surveys.

Here is a best-practice approach Forrester has developed to effectively assess business satisfaction through surveys. The process, which looks like a research funnel, consists of the following seven steps (see Figure 1, click on to expand to full screen):

Keep the research funnel in mind when developing a business satisfaction survey

Step 1: Identify your audience. In many companies, more than 90 per cent of staff uses technology services every day. IT executives need to be clear on whom they want to survey and what for. For example, a survey on end users' perceptions of the help desk would ask questions about how satisfied they are with incident resolution, whereas a survey of business managers might ask questions about responsiveness of IT to business needs or consistency of quality levels.

Step 2: Start broad with qualitative research. The next step is to assess what is important from the business perspective, how it accrues value from technology, and what specific IT resources will help the business reach its goals. Just as importantly, ask internal customer questions using language that they understand - as opposed to "IT speak." To qualify the opportunities for improvement, IT executives also need to understand the required effort - that is, determining whether a few data samples obtained through one-on-one discussions with a selection of clients, "real" focus groups, or broad surveys are the most appropriate. This is also the time to decide whether a third party should conduct the data gathering to avoid bias and leading responses.

Step 3: Design your quantitative study. A good survey asks no more than 20 to 30 questions. It should start with overall satisfaction questions, and then quickly move into what works well and what needs improvement. The questions should be direct and unambiguous, but they should not have obvious answers.

Quantitative surveys must place an emphasis on using sharp metrics to uncover flaws. Experience shows that a 10-point scale with 10 being the highest level of satisfaction is the most effective approach. Always include at least one open question along the lines of "If we could do one thing to improve your overall satisfaction with IT, what would it be?"

Step 4: Test and field. Once developed, the survey needs testing. Ideally, IT should conduct a handful of face-to-face interviews with clients to see if they actually understand the questions and then debug issues prior to mass surveying.

Step 5: Assess. The reason you do satisfaction surveys is to drive tangible operational improvements. The analytical framework to use with them should be "what can we be doing better." Visualise the results. See which elements of satisfaction actually drive overall satisfaction.

Step 6: Craft an action plan to correct problems. Once IT has collected evidence about what is important to the business and where there are problems, it should put resources in place to address the problems, as appropriate. IT executives should bear in mind that the correct level of satisfaction may vary depending on business realities.

• Step 7: Repeat. IT should repeat the survey periodically in a predictable manner - bearing in mind that no client eagerly takes yet another survey, in particular when no visible improvement effort follows. Usually two times a year is sufficient.