Here are a few ideas for getting almost-free consumer feedback that is closer to the point of sale:
Chat up your sales force.
Sales people are built-in customer feedback receptors, and they're already on the payroll. They hold a wealth of up-to-the-minute customer knowledge because they talk to prospects and customers all day long. They feel the pain of purchase barriers and know how to jump those hurdles. They understand how marketing conditions the prospect for the sale - how it helps and how it hurts. And they typically have some great ideas on how to move the prospect down the path to purchase.
It's pretty simple to schedule a monthly focus-group style session with a handful of sales reps. You want to be prepared with a discussion guide, employ your best moderating skills (sales reps are usually a vocal bunch!), and look for a few key insights that will help inform your marketing (the sales people will have lots of suggestions, but not all relate to marketing).
Also, you'll want to take a longitudinal view of your Sales Rep research -- if you're doing this every month you may want to keep some themes consistent and change others according to buying season.
The point of sale is often the best time to get insight about what drives consumer behavior. The types of questions to ask can be relatively simple such as: why did you decide to purchase from our company? Why today? What other brands did you consider? How long did you think about this purchase before today?
Maybe even more important is asking questions of prospects who didn't purchase: Why didn't you purchase today? What other brands are you considering? What could we do to cause you to purchase today?
You can execute surveys like this either on the phone by selecting every nth caller, or on your Web site by developing a pop-up survey.
Dig deeper into your blog.
Keeping an eye on your blog and other blogs in your competitive set can be a source of coveted consumer feedback. Monitoring feedback on a regular basis to look for common themes, complaints, praise, and suggestions can provide insight into not only your marketing, but also your products and customer service.
Whether you choose to explore one or all of these ideas, keep in mind that just because these methods are low-cost doesn't mean they're not important. You'll want to treat them with the rigor you would treat a research project for which you would normally pay thousands of dollars.