Customer surveys -- the kind that ask, "How are we doing?" and "What would you like to buy from us?" -- are useful but expensive.

Two years ago Proex Photo Systems, a photo-processing and portrait company based in Edina, Minn., paid a firm $35,000 to design and conduct a survey of 1,500 customers and to tabulate the results. This year 10-year-old Proex, with 20 retail locations in Minnesota, will conduct another big (albeit less complex) survey. This one, however, will cost just $2 a head -- about 8.5% of what Proex paid before. "That's quite a difference," notes company founder and president Bruce Thomson.

The difference is that this year Thomson is paying the outside firm only to ask the questions. Everything else -- composing the questions, entering the responses, and tabulating the results -- Proex will do itself using a $695 PC-based software package called Survey Master.

The program, one of a handful on the market, lets you write questions of any type: true/false, fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, rating scale, and open-ended. While you're doing that, Survey Master creates the corresponding data-entry form you'll use to enter the results. (With most of the other programs, writing the questions and creating the data-entry form are two separate steps.) With all the survey programs, it's up to you how you want to tabulate the answers you get, but the software will prompt you and perform any cross-tabulation you want.

What Survey Master -- or any other program -- won't do is help you know which questions to ask. The Survey Master documentation does contain a short primer on survey design, but Thomson sometimes runs his questions by a professional pollster first to be sure the answers will yield the information he wants.

Survey Master is available from the manufacturer, Plain Jayne Software, in Edina, Minn., at (800) 827-4013.

-- Tom Richman