Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Golf Course Survey, Again, More Than You Need To Know!

By Michael Vogt, CGCS

Surveys represent one of the most common types of quantitative research into a study group. In a common survey the survey administrator selects a group of respondents and executes a standardized questionnaire to them. The questionnaire, or survey, can be a written document that is completed by the person being surveyed. A survey can be conducted as an online questionnaire, a face-to-face interview, or a telephone interview. Using surveys, it is possible to collect exacting data, desires and tends from a specific population.

Proper focus groups and surveys help you:

● Determine how to correctly target your golf course maintenance and capital spending and plans

● Identify membership desires and other opportunities at your club

● Determine what you are doing wrong as well as what you are doing right

● Uncover problems with your course maintenance business that may not have surfaced otherwise

● Evaluate your success with projects and maintenance with measurable data

Focus Groups

In combining focus groups with surveys, group members not only can help provide topics for surveys but importance rankings and survey question distribution. If you want to assess your members' needs beyond simple questions and answers here's how focus groups can help.

Focus groups are typically composed of 4 to 5 pre-screened members that meet criteria you specify. They are assembled in one room to discuss and react to specific topics relevant to your golf course business.

Consider this: you are planning your next year’s annual budget and would like to learn what your members think about conditioning on the golf course before bring the plan to the board for approval. You could hire a company to conduct a survey beginning with a series of focus groups and a survey to follow but that can be very expensive. So how can you get this information more affordably? You can attempt do it yourself.

Clearly, any research you do yourself will have limitations when compared to studies conducted by professionals, but if you are seeking some general guidance about important topics of interest, you can get good information for a nominal cost.

The goal is to explore the general attitudes of the participants to the topics selected for inclusion in the session and ultimately to aid in the construction of survey questions. Focus groups are intended to generate macro information, whereas quantitative survey research seeks to provide micro information. Use the focus group to help formulate your survey questions.

There is no rule as to the number of focus groups to be conducted on a specific topic but two or three groups of different age, handicap and gender usually will work fine. This raises one of the most important issues relative to the implementation of focus groups; the definition of the participants. In any focus group session it is vital that the composition of the group is as homogeneous as possible in terms of key demographic characteristics. For example, if course conditioning is the topic there would be major differences in attitudes between high and low handicappers, social and full golfing members, men and woman and participants who are under 35 compared to those over 65. Not only will the participants have different views on a topic, but getting participants to share their attitudes will be much easier if they are not placed in an environment where some might be intimidated by others due to age, skill of the game or gender. Therefore, it is important to conduct at least one group with each constituent group of the same gender and of different abilities at least.

Before the focus groups meeting, develop a very clear and precise written statement of the objectives for conducting the research. It is essential to have a well-thought-out 'target' for the study which will form the strategic basis for the project. It could be titled, “The Importance of Conditioning as it Relates to Annual Budget Preparation at Pleasant Fairways Golf Club”. A brief explanation of the plan should accompany each written statement. Be sure to give these statements to each participant in advance of the meeting.

Create a discussion guide outline that contains all the topics you hope to cover in a focus group. The discussion guide is the most important tool in focus groups and is as vital to the novice as to the experienced moderator. The guide is intended to provide a logical flow to the discussion, so that all topics are covered and there is consistency across all the groups in a series relative to the information discussed. Golf course superintendents know the steps involved in different types of course conditioning, member golfers do not. Explanations of the differences in course conditioning and budget preparation are helpful in the discussion. To this end, it is helpful to provide a time estimate for each of the topics as a guide for the moderator and to ensure that everything gets covered, but also for those interested in the output of the research.

Ensure the group does not go off on tangents, wasting valuable time. It is the responsibility of the moderator to direct discussion so that all topics are covered.

View the group discussion as a way to obtain interaction among the participants. It should not be a series of questions directed at each individual. One of the key benefits of the focus group methodology is to have participants react to each other as ideas are presented, so it is possible to determine the differences in attitudes among participants.

Finally, use write-down exercises to initially lock participants into a position about a particular topic, so they are not swayed by the effects of group dynamics in which a dominant personality can influence the flow of the discussion. Essentially, a write-down exercise is a vehicle whereby the moderator raises a topic (e.g. reaction to increase in green speeds) and each person in the group is asked to write their point of view in 30 words or fewer on a piece of paper prior to discussing the topic. If this is done, the participants will be more honest about their responses than if they were asked to respond to the question without having written down their view first.

Focus groups are helpful because the participants can be probed for the reasoning behind their opinions, and conversations can be generated around a particular topic giving you what's known as "rich data" as opposed to, for example, the finite answers you get from survey questions alone.

As the name implies, these are focus groups, keep the subject matter narrow to the immediate task at hand. For example, if you want the focus groups to guide you to areas on the course that need attention, in their opinion, ask the group a specific question and give them specific choices.

“In your opinion, what single maintenance item needs to be accomplished to help our club compete with other clubs in our region?”
1) Green Speed
2) Replace Bunker Sand
3) Add More Cart Paths
4) Renovate Rest Rooms on Course
5) Level Tees

Then, discuss these items and take copious notes. From the feedback you’ll discover the “Hot Button” items that should be uncovered from the focus groups passion about the subject as well as the solutions these members might have. Remember, BITE YOUR TONGUE, this is not the forum to rebut criticisms and comments!

Equal weight should be given to each group, so often the low handicappers are the driving force for change on the course. The women, juniors, seniors and weekend-playing high handicappers must be involved in the process or the questions placed in the survey will not be appropriate or statically valid for the good of the membership as a whole.

Remember, the focus group was used as a preliminary research technique to explore the membership’s ideas and attitudes. Also, the focus group is often used to test new approaches, and to discover membership concerns. Generally, keep the subject matter thin and to the point during the focus group sessions. At all costs, conversations with these focus groups must be kept for becoming grip sessions.

The Questions

Writing the questions to ascertain the answers needed to guide your course to the next level of membership satisfaction and playability are difficult and could become a Catch 22 if not carefully formulated. Here are some simple guidelines and examples for building a meaningful question for your golf survey.

• Ask for an answer on only one dimension or topic. The purpose of a survey is to find out specific information. A question that asks for a response on more than one dimension or topic will not provide the information you are looking for. For example, survey questions investigating new bunker sand asks, "Do you like the color and playability of the experimental sand in the practice bunker?" If a respondent answers "no", then the superintendent will not know if the member dislikes the color or the playability, or both. Another questionnaire asks, "Are you satisfied with the quality of cut and height of cut of our greens and tees?" Again, if the respondent answers "no", there is no way to know whether the quality of cut, height of cut, or both of greens and or tees were unsatisfactory. A good question asks for only one "bit" of information.

• A survey question should accommodate all possible answers. Multiple choice items are the most popular type of survey questions because they are generally the easiest for a respondent to answer and the easiest to analyze. Asking a question that does not accommodate all possible responses can confuse and frustrate the respondent. For example, consider the question:

What’s the name of your favorite golf course architect? ______
A. Tom Fazio
B. Jack Nicklaus

Clearly, there are many problems with this question. What if the respondent doesn't have a favorite golf course architect? What if the member’s favorite architect is Pete Dye? What if the member has multiple favorite architects? There are ways to correct this kind of problem.

What’s the name of your favorite golf course architect?___
A. Tom Fazio
B. Jack Nicklaus

C. Pete Dye
D. I don’t have a favorite golf course architect
E. Other(s) Please List ___________________

• A question that probes satisfaction and importance should always include five factors. These questions most often give information that can be easily analyzed and give the superintendent very specific direction on needed improvements and changes in management strategies. (A graph that illustrates this is explained in the data section of this article)

Choose A though E to describe your satisfaction on overall greens condition __.
A. Very Satisfied
B. Satisfied
C. Neutral
D. Dissatisfied
E. Very Dissatisfied

• The importance of each tested element should also be indicated similarly:

Choose A though E to describe the importance of overall greens condition ____.
A. Very Important
B. Important
C. Neutral
D. Unimportant
E. Not important at all

• A great question has mutually exclusive options. A great question leaves no ambiguity in the mind of the respondent. There should be only one correct or appropriate choice for the respondent to make. An obvious example is:

Why do you play golf? ____.
A. For fun
B. For enjoyment
C. To be outdoors
D. To appreciate nature

The answers to the question seem ambiguous. Furthermore, player who enjoys more than one feature would not know whether to select choice A, B, C or D. This question would not provide meaningful information.

• When a question produces no variability in responses, we are left with considerable uncertainty about why we asked the question and what we learned from the information. If a question does not produce variability in responses, it will not be possible to perform any statistical analyses on the item. For example:

What do you think about the golf course? ___.
A. It's the worst golf course I’ve ever played
B. It's somewhere between the worst and best
C. It's the best golf course I've ever played

Since almost all responses would be choice B, very little information is learned. Design your questions so they are sensitive to differences between respondents. As another example:

Do you repair ball marks on greens? (Circle: Yes or No)

Again, there would be very little variability in responses and we'd be left wondering why we asked the question in the first place. Among the most subtle mistakes in questionnaire design are questions that make an unwarranted assumption. An example of this type of mistake is:

Are you satisfied with the club’s USGA specification greens? (Circle: Yes or No)

This question will present a problem for someone who does not know what a USGA specification green is. Write your questions so they apply to everyone. This often means simply adding an additional response category.

Are you satisfied with the club’s USGA specification greens?____
A. Yes
B. No
C. I don’t know what constitutes a USGA specification green

• One of the most common mistaken assumptions is that the respondent knows the correct answer to the question. Industry surveys often contain very specific questions that the respondent may not know the answer to. For example:

What percent of the greens consist of Poa annua?___
A. 20%
B. 25%
C. 30%
D. 40%

Very few people would know the answer to this question. If you ask a question similar to this, it is important to understand that the responses are rough estimates or completely erroneous and there is a strong likelihood of error.

If there is any possibility that the respondent may not know the answer to your question, include a "don't know" response category.

• Wording of a question is extremely important. We are striving for objectivity in our surveys and, therefore, must be careful not to lead the respondent into giving the answer we would like to receive. Leading questions are usually easily spotted because they use negative phraseology. As examples:

Wouldn't you like to have golf course condition similar to Augusta National? (Circle: Yes or No)

Don't you think the board is spending too much money? (Circle: Yes or No)

Never use emotionally loaded or vaguely defined words. This is one of the areas overlooked by both beginners and experienced survey administrators. Quantifying adjectives (e.g., most, least, majority) are frequently used in questions. It is important to understand that these adjectives mean different things to different people.

• Branching in surveys should be avoided. While branching can be used as an effective probing technique in telephone and face-to-face interviews, it should not be used in written surveys because it sometimes confuses respondents. An example of branching is:

1. Do you currently play golf at another club? (Circle: Yes or No) If no, go to question 3
2. How much are guest fees at the other club?

These questions could easily be rewritten as one question that applies to everyone:

1. How much are guest fees at other clubs you play?___
A. Less than $45.00
B. Between $46.00 - $50.00
C. Between $51.00 - $65.00
D. Between $66.00 - $80.00
E. Above $81.00
F. I don’t play at other clubs

• Questions asking respondents to rank items by importance should be avoided. This becomes increasingly difficult as the number of items increases, and the answers become less reliable. This becomes especially problematic when asking respondents to assign a percentage to a series of items. In order to successfully complete this task, the respondent must mentally continue to re-adjust his answers until they total one hundred percent. Limiting the number of items to four will make it easier for the respondent to answer.

What are the most important items (by percentage) we should address when considering the practice areas?___
A. The practice tee divot program
B. The chipping green size
C. The practice green size
D. Better more visible target greens

The Data

From the above satisfaction questions we can ascertain a variety of statistical measures, the graph below will illustrate some interesting information of membership desires in specific areas of the course.

The graph in Figure 1 indicates greens are the highest rated component tested, it is what is known as a quality driver, high satisfaction and highly important to most all members. Testing tees at these golf course components should be slated for priority improvements or simply put, very important to golfers but could use more improvements. Rough, cart paths, practice range and bunkers are of less importance to members and should be viewed as missed opportunities but not as critical as the rest of the components tested.

By testing these seven critical areas we have ascertained information that will guide maintenance and improvement programs to meet membership expectations.

                         Figure 1

                         Figure 2

Critically import is the standard methodology used to understand the membership’s importance of an asset or activity, the graph to illustrate these outcomes is apparent in Figure 1. Figure 2 compiles survey respondent averages for questions based on importance and satisfaction and the gap or deviation between the two. The closer this gap is to zero the better the balance is between importance and satisfaction. Importance of a component or activity in most cases will most likely remain the same from year to year, if the importance does move, it will slowly move, over time as attrition changes the demographics of the club. Satisfaction is the important driver that needs to be most examined in a timely fashion or perhaps yearly fashion.

As the above graph shows, data points that are in the right two quadrants are of higher importance to the member, as these data points move up in the graph satisfaction increases.

The curved line represents a “Value Boundary”; items below this curved line are indicated as needed improvements, especially the data points furthest to the right two quadrants. They indicate higher need for improvement based on attaining membership satisfaction relevant to importance.

We know form this example that greens, fairways and tees are classified as high importance, these three golf course components also scored high in satisfaction. The superintendent can gather from this graph that bunkers are deemed important but scored low in satisfaction. A bunker program is indicated by this member survey. Tees are also deemed of high importance and slightly below the “Value Boundary” in satisfaction, tees should be considered for some sort of renovation in the near future to achieve a better satisfaction score.

Rough, practice range and cart paths fall into a range in the upper-lower left quadrant. They are considered significant enhancers, not very high in satisfaction or importance. If these components move into the upper right quadrant they would become significant enhancements to the overall golf course condition in this example. Recommendations would be to address these items as time and funds become available.

The club’s vibrancy depends on three basic features:

Utilization → Satisfaction → Retention

Asking questions based on the members perceived importance and satisfaction become important drivers to accomplish the finest plan to sustain membership value and contentment. Formulating questions in a format that asks for satisfaction and importance becomes critical in an improvement plan and routine maintenance practices.

This article just touches on some of the valuable information on conducting a focus group study and survey to determine membership player satisfaction. Getting information on value and direction of important management strategies is more important today than in prior years. Through use of specialized management techniques including surveys, operational studies, strategic planning and annual budget and program forecasting you can increase utilization, satisfaction and ultimately enable your club to increase membership retention. In today’s competitive golf environment member’s enjoyment and satisfaction are paramount to retaining a fully satisfied membership roster.

Download a free copy of a sample survey in excel format.

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