Polls tend to penetrate the public consciousness during election seasons, calling up a horse race mentality keen to find out who’s going to win and by how much.

But the types of polling with the most value for political campaigns are not as highly publicized. Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, points to what has been important to candidates in the gubernatorial campaign. “Corzine and Christie are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to find out ‘What are my perceived strengths and my opponents’ perceived weaknesses?’” he says.

Just as candidates use surveys to understand how the public perceives them, businesses should be doing the same to explore areas like customer satisfaction and a company’s perceived strengths versus its competitors’, Newport says. He will speak on “How Polling Affects Business” on Thursday, November 5, at 11:30 a.m. at the Marriott Princeton Hotel and Conference Center, 100 College Road East. Cost: $50. To register, go to www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.

Newport grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, where his father was a Baptist theologian, author, and scholar. He was retired academic vice president and provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His mother, now living in Houston, was a housewife in Newport’s youth but became a guide, leading tours around the world.

While at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where he graduated as a broadcasting major, Newport worked for the commercial radio station KWTX as a disc jockey and a sports reporter; the station was partially owned by Lady Bird Johnson.

At the University of Michigan, where Newport earned his doctorate in sociology, his dissertation research explored inequality in society. Looking at competing theories about how rewards should be distributed — according to need or based on personal contribution — he found that “people believe high rewards are okay if there are high inputs.”

These findings, he notes, are germane to current discussions about capping the pay of people who head banks and investment firms. Newport has also had a long-standing interest in the sociology of religion and co-wrote a book with Stuart Rothenberg titled “The Evangelical Voter.”

After graduate school Newport landed in the expected role of teaching sociology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. But after four years he took a one-year leave of absence that extended to a lifetime and returned to his broadcasting roots with a job in Houston as talk show host and news director at KTRH radio. The call letters, he noted, stand for “Come to the Rice Hotel,” which was on President John Kennedy’s itinerary when he was killed in Dallas.

While at KTRH Newport met and interviewed an entrepreneur with his own polling company. The company’s primary work had been in political polling for candidates in Houston, but to counteract the drop off in revenues during odd-numbered years, the company began doing market research and invited Newport to join the company in that area. Newport took the job, eventually becoming a partner in the firm. He did market research for the Texas Rangers baseball club, where he says he “ran into George W. Bush,” who was then the club’s chair.

In 1984, after George Gallup, founder of Gallup Poll in Princeton in 1935, died, Gallup’s family sold the company to a family-run market research company from Lincoln, Nebraska — the same firm that had bought the firm Newport was working for. “I was melded into the Lincoln company, then melded into Gallup,” Newport says. “In a few years they asked me to move to Princeton to take over as editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.”

Gallup has expanded significantly since Newport arrived in 1990 and has offices around the world. Most of its revenues still come from its work with business and industry, which includes classic market research, and areas like employee engagement, customer attachment, and customer loyalty.

Another specialty, employee selection, is connected to the Nebraska company, which was started by a professor of psychology interested in scientifically analyzing the character or traits that correlated to successful employees in particular industries. “They vary with company and industry,” says Newport. “Traits for Merrill Lynch brokers would be aggressiveness and competitiveness; for school teachers, compassion. It’s not cookie cutter, every company has different strengths.”

Aside from his work at Gallup, Newport still keeps his finger in broadcasting as co-host with Dave Heller of a weekly radio show, “What Are We Thinking?” that is produced and syndicated by the Philadelphia NPR affiliate WHYY-FM.

Newport has a few suggestions for business owners about the role polling and other market research can play in helping their businesses to be successful:

Customer research. In addition to understanding their own customers, companies need to know why people are attracted to their competitors, Newport says. He offers as an example a heating and air conditioning company. “It needs to know what homeowners are looking for, why they choose the competition over me, and what is my name recognition,” he said.

Market research is essential for all businesses, large or small. “One of the biggest mistakes small business owners make is that they don’t do market research,” says Newport. “They think they understand their customers because they see them at the counter every day.”

Market research, however, can uncover the things they are not seeing. For example, take customers whose clothes are coming back wrinkled from a dry cleaner. An owner who had been consistently asking about quality would be able to fix the problem before people shift to a new dry cleaner.

Although professional surveys might be too expensive for small companies, they can gather the same information in less expensive ways, like a typewritten card with questions about service quality that customers can complete and slip into a box. Newport vents at one area store that could profit from customer research, because its employees are generally rude. “They should understand that if they could operate in a friendlier manner, they could raise their revenues by 30 percent,” he says.

Broader business environment. Any business owner has to understand the broader environment, particularly with regard to consumer confidence and attitudes in response to the recession. “Gallup is trying to figure out if we are looking at a new normal,” says Newport. That is, even when we recover, will customers still spend less, in what ways might they curtail spending, and will this whole issue be less important going forward? These questions are particularly important, he adds, to businesses offering luxury products.

Political environment. A range of government policies affect business. As Newport puts it, “the broader political environment trickles down.”

Polls can help businesspeople understand which way the political winds are blowing. “If they are moving in a more left direction,” says Newport, “the public will be more accepting of government intervention in curtailing executive pay, healthcare reform, and regulations on credit card issuers.” In turn, if the American public is more tolerant of a higher level of government intervention, business will be affected dramatically. In terms of healthcare, for example, not only will hospitals be affected but also smaller businesses that have to pay healthcare costs.

Government policy on income taxes also has a big effect on businesses, particularly in terms of the propensity of high-income customers to buy. “If the environment accepts increasing taxes on the rich,” says Newport, “and your business sells furs to the rich or you are a Mercedes dealer, you can be affected.” Or consider how a policy like “Cash for Clunkers” can affect a car dealership versus an automobile repair shop.

Gallup also monitors consumer spending daily and asks 3,000 to 4,000 people whether their companies are hiring or firing. These surveys are revealing little in terms of job creation, which is blunting other more positive trends.

“We have seen an up-tick in consumer confidence but not concomitant increases in spending,” says Newport, “I think because we are not seeing the jobs picture move.”

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