Data analytics is a vital tool for learning what your customers want. If your company has yet to develop a data strategy, you may be missing out on insights essential to connecting with them.

But for small businesses, setting up a data strategy from scratch might seem like a daunting--if not impossible--task. Fortunately there are some simple ways to generate the data you need. And the best one to start with is customer surveys.

Surveys come in many types and formats, so select the one best suited to your budget and the kind of results you're seeking. Paper and over-the-phone surveys are less common, but have a high response rate. Online surveys give you fast results from a large population of customers. There are a lot of free or low-cost online options available, including SurveyMonkey, Zoho, and Google Forms.

The tricky part is getting customers on board. With the response rate from customers averaging around 10 to 15 percent for all survey formats, it's not always easy to get enough data to develop informed strategies. So when you're crafting your survey, try these smart tips from Steven Snell, Senior XM Research Methodologist at Qualtrics, a Utah-based data software company. 

1. Focus on the respondent experience
You need to make sure your survey is focused, relevant, and user-friendly. Many surveys include too many questions, require time-consuming open-ended responses, or have questions that don't apply to the respondent. Snell recommends you create the kind of survey you would want to participate in yourself. "By offering your respondents a good experience, you increase respondents' engagement and decrease the risk of low-quality and biased data," he says.

2. Let research goals dictate the content
Companies often ask as many questions as possible in the hope of getting more information, a mistake that leaves them with bad data and low completion rates. Instead, Snell says, the best researchers first define the objectives of their research and then make sure that every question aligns with them. "Let this be your guide," he advises. "If you don't know how you might use a question to achieve your research goal, don't include it in the study."

3. Use open-ended questions strategically
Snell says the majority of your survey should be composed of closed-ended questions that are simple for respondents to analyze and answer. However, it's sometimes necessary to elicit more context and detail than closed-ended questions can provide. "By strategically using a few open-ended questions in your study, especially as a follow-up to closed-ended questions, you can add more texture to your data and arrive at a more complete picture of the respondents' experiences," he says.

4. Measure data over time
Using the same survey repeatedly as your company grows lets you know where you're improving and where you're falling short. Even if your survey is well-written, it's difficult to see your progress if you use it only once. "As the adage goes: if you want to measure change, don't change the measures," Snell says.