Firms from all segments of the insurance and financial services industry are increasingly pumping out surveys.

Every week, it seems, new statistical reports come out on retirement trends, buyer preferences, boomers, product sales, workers, employers and a host of other topics.

You could call this part of the industry Survey Heaven.

National Underwriter has duly reported on many of these probes into the American consciousness, and we will continue to do so.

(If you are a premium subscriber to NU, you can check this out for yourself. Just go to our archive section–at http://www.nationalunderwriter.com/archives/ –and plug the word “survey” into the Keyword box. I did that while writing this column, and the search engine brought up 300 entries in just one sweep.)

But the trend does prompt the question: What in the world are the firms doing with all these survey results?

After discussing this with a broad spectrum of executives over the past few years, Ive come to this conclusion: The firms are not doing as much with the surveys as they could.

To which I say: In this era of rampant cost-cutting, thats a colossal waste. If firms dont maximize use of the surveys they commission, why even bother?

Im not saying, “Stop all surveys.” Im saying, “Use them to the max, or lose them.”

Discussions about this generally bring up a number of things that firms do do with their surveys.

Some use the results to beef up statements made in the marketing materials they distribute to advisors and consumers.

Some punch up the speeches given by their executives with various survey results.

Some pepper the press releases they send out to the media with numbers and charts from the surveys.

Some “test” the results against industry benchmarks (if they exist), and/or broader public sentiment polls, and/or company performance results.

Some let the results inform, if not guide, their everyday workin a “good to know” kind of way.

Did you notice something missing from that list? Yes, you are right. What is missing is any reference to using survey findings to influence new product development.

I omitted that usage because very few executives have told me their firms use the results to shape product upgrades or new designs.

I dont know how widespread that is (wed have to do a survey on that to find out, right?). But, to the extent it exists, its a crying shame.

Lets give a nod to the smattering of firms that do factor the results into product development in some way. They earn Gold Stars for doing that.

Just what do they do? Most tell me they do not base designs on results of just one survey. Rather, they blend results with findings from focus groups, industry research, field advisory councils, complaint files and more. And they evaluate it against company mission, culture, systems and many other business realities.

Their goal is to build what the customer wantswithin reason. If, say, a survey finds consumers want maximum coverage, guaranteed issue, for no cost, thats a no-can-do, and the idea never gets in the game. But if a survey finds consumers would pay a reasonable price (i.e., one that can produce profits) for a much-wanted feature that is doable, the idea could end up in play.

Of course, there are some very good reasons for not bringing a survey into product development in this fashion. The most obvious one is that the survey findings do not point toward making product upgrades or a new design.

Also, some surveys are tailored for other uses (like garnering marketing information), not product design.

And, lets face it, sometimes a survey uncovers findings that go against the company grain, culture, budget and/or business plan. It could be a positive finding, it could point to a valuable improvement or new feature, and it could hint at profitability or market expansion. But some force somewhere in the organization wont even entertain it–for the reasons cited above or for other reasons (turf battles, strategy, time constraints, complacency, etc.).

Its a rough go, when those who see design potential in some survey results duke it out with those who see a big “No” in those same results. Ive spoken with developers who are sure the Naysayers are crazy, and Ive heard from Naysayers who think the developers are pipe dreaming.

The parties can get so polarized, it truly is a crying shame, as noted earlier.

One way to cool things down, and to find some common ground, might be to draw up a rough proposal, with some projections concerning costs, sales, revenues and so on. Also include a market landscape. If the survey results really do show strong potential for an upgrade or new design, this strategy might help other people come around.

While relatively few firms currently make surveys an integral part of the product development process, my guess is that this will change. As more data becomes available, more people in the organization will know more and want to do more with what they know.

If youve been holding back on this, now might be a good time to get on board. Doing so may help your firm meet competition, better serve customers and build its forward-profitable business.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, December 5, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.