The Community Survey: Benefits and Best Practices for Small Businesses during COVID-19

In addition to its public health ramifications, the coronavirus pandemic has had frightening, tremendous impacts on the American economy and small businesses have been hit especially hard. Although emergency relief and government interventions have helped, small businesses across the board are doing their best to adjust to the tumults of COVID-19 without going under. One potentially useful approach that requires minimal energy to set up and can have solid advantages for small businesses is a thoughtful community survey. 

Why run a COVID-19 survey?

There are several benefits to running a community survey. Some of these benefits are relevant for your small businesses at any time (for example, you need better data about your neighborhood customer base), but many are especially pressing in light of COVID-19’s widespread impacts (i.e., when potential customers want to tell you about their safety concerns).   

Collect meaningful data

Small businesses are more likely to succeed when they hold in depth, up-to-date knowledge about their communities. This includes understanding who potential customers and advocates are, what they need and want, and how your business fits in. Although data-focused inquiry is a great way to assess this at any time, it’s especially important in moments of uncertainty and crisis when things are shifting rapidly. 

  • If you run a brick-and-mortar store, you might ask your customers or clients how safe they are feeling about venturing out or about a price point that meets their budget.
  • If you manage a nonprofit, you might ask the community you support about their most pressing needs.
  • If you oversee any small business, you might ask your employees about their biggest concerns and their ideas for moving forward through the crisis.

It’s vital to know what’s happening around you, safely. Even if you’ve been using community-sourced data already to inform your business, now’s a good time to reassess. Not to mention that regular surveys and data capturing are useful over time to notice trends and better understand how your business is able to respond and adapt to change. 

Give your community a voice

Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have dramatically changed how we communicate. For small businesses that thrive on in-person relationships and exchange, it’s much harder now to get a sense for where people stand. It’s also impossible to talk to everyone.

Sending out a simple survey for people to complete remotely demonstrates that, even though they might not be walking through your front door, members of your community still matter to you. This can also help you assess opinions and gain support regarding the challenging decisions small business owners are being forced to make right now—let your community weigh in, for example, on whether you should reopen immediately or which practices will make patrons and customers feel safe. 

Strengthen relationships

It’s one thing to know someone because they made a purchase. It’s another to know them because you both committed time to deepening understanding and building a relationship. 

Small businesses thrive on human connection in a way large brands simply can’t. 

Surveying your community can increase these bonds by showing potential and current customers, as well as current and future advocates for your business, that you want to listen and you’re looking to improve and adapt. Surveys can also serve as a way to forge a new relationship inspired by the feedback and information you receive, or build on an existing relationship by responding to what respondents tell you.

Lilia Perez, Grants and Programs Manager at Arts Mid-Hudson, has been collecting impact data to this end. She sees a survey “as a way to open the door to speak to your grantee or your awardee. Because then, I can just call them up on the phone and use the information that I see to start off a conversation and figure out what’s going on for them and how we can help.”

Assess and address needs

Even in the struggle to survive, small businesses are still looking to give back where they can. What that giving looks like will vary widely based on resources, business-focus, and community needs. Understanding where there are community deficits your business could address is an essential step.

Women in Cloud, an organization serving female entrepreneurs, ran an impact survey in the first months of COVID-19 to help them better serve those in need. According to President and Co-Founder Chaitra Vedullapalli, president & co-founder,

We are collecting inquiries from our community, to really develop and enable a resource center that allows people to get timely solutions. What we want to do is collect the information, the what, the how, the who—and make sure it’s very clear.

Build a responsive strategy

Worldwide, COVID-19 has made it clear that ongoing flexibility is vital for businesses success. From shifting local, state, and federal recommendations and guidelines to rapidly evolving scientific understanding of the virus, best practices for small businesses can change daily.

The better understanding small businesses have for important data related to their community, the more likely they are to be able to respond, on a dime, for success. Factoring current and prospective customer information into the puzzle regarding reopening, safety standards, and economic adjustments (including staffing) can help make for better outcomes, whatever you decide.

Three survey best practices for small businesses

In order to reap the maximum benefits from a community survey, take a moment to strategize. Everyone is short on time and attention these days, with overwhelm and stress ever close at hand. If you make the effort to connect and learn with a survey, and community members put in the work to complete, you want to be sure you’re taking the best advantage of everyone’s precious resources.

Keep it simple

A good survey under normal circumstances strikes the perfect balance between a streamlined experience for the respondent (i.e. it’s short enough and easy to complete) and meaningful data collection for the survey creator. At the current moment, erring on the side of simplicity will help to minimize burden for people responding to your survey and encourage them to complete it. Minimize the number of questions you ask and be thoughtful about your survey questions types, especially if you’re collecting demographic data.

When the goal is direct access to the most vital information, digital surveys can be shared, completed, and collected fast. For Arts Mid-Hudson, their online survey form has six questions and is allowing the small organization to quickly assess COVID-19 impact. 

“This form has been quite helpful,” says Pérez, “in that we’re able to get directly from our grantees and awardees what the situation is so that we can advocate on their behalf.”

Include open-ended questions

You don’t know what you don’t know until you ask. Even a short survey can benefit from an open-response question where community members can share feedback and make inquiries. 

As Pérez says,

There’s a lot we did not anticipate we would need to be tracking for. And once we started getting in some feedback through an open-ended question, then we determined, okay, we might need to add this to the form moving forward and ask specifically about this.

Using a digital format ensures that you can adjust the survey as needed based on the responses received. Open-ended questions also prepare small business owners to offer relevant resources where they can.

According to Pérez, “If there’s a really clear question that keeps coming up, we can put out a resource or send a mass email to everyone…with a response to whatever the question might be.” 

Integrate opportunities for follow-up

Think of your survey as a conversation starter that can engender an ongoing back and forth. Not only will a survey provide a direct reason to potentially follow up, but it can help inform in-person exchange and engagement when business becomes a bit more normal in the future. 

Be sure to collect contact information if people are willing to share it. You can also have them check a box if they’d like to hear from you directly.

If you receive criticism, responding personally is a great way to transform the relationship. Following up on any sort of question individually helps potential and returning customers feel a more personal connection with your business because you’ve shown they matter to you.

And in trying times, personal connections are that much more important. 

Small businesses, at your service

If you’ve never done a survey, now might be the perfect time to try something new, as businesses across industries experiment and adjust to new circumstances. If you regularly survey, maintaining connection and conversation with your community from a distance in this way is just as valuable as ever. 

While clearly sales continue to be vital in these uncertain times, Vedullapalli suggests shifting focus somewhat. “In this moment,” she says, “we should move from serving shareholders to serving stakeholders who are customers, partners, vendors, employees—so everybody’s taken care of through this journey.”

Even if it’s just a short online survey, listening and caring are great ways to be of service to stakeholders and ultimately, collect data you need to help your small business weather the storm.

If you’d like to explore Submittable as a partner for administering a community survey, we’d love to help

Rachel Mindell

Rachel Mindell is a Special Projects Editor at Submittable. She also writes and teaches poetry. Connect with her on LinkedIn.