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Determining users' needs for trade information.


A trade information service (TIS) can play its role effectively only if it provides information that is of direct, practical use to its clients. This should be information that is not supplied by other sources and that can efficiently be made available by the TIS concerned, given its human and financial resources. Systematically ascertaining the needs of its users is therefore a key element in the successful operation of a TIS. Such an assessment should be a continual exercise, given the rapidly changing international trading environment in which the country's business community must operate.

User categories

The types of users of a trade information service are primarily the following: * Import and export firms. * Manufacturers. * Firms providing trade services. * Chambers of commerce. * Trade and industry organizations. * Trade promotion institutions. * Central and local government offices.

These entities and the different departments in them obviously have different expectations from a TIS, depending on whether they are intermediate users of the information or the actual end-users, occasional or frequent users and experienced or nonexperienced users. The TIS will therefore be required to provide different types of information services to meet the specific needs of each group, for instance trade data in response to a particular request or advice on how information can be used in a given foreign trade operation.

Information sought

In its assessment, a TIS should obtain three types of information from its users in order to plan and organize its information activities most effectively: information on the users themselves, so that a clear picture exists of the firms and organizations to be served; information on the products and markets of interest to the users (in the case of companies, exportable products or those with export potential, and present or new export markets); and, most important for the TIS' future work priorities, information on the specific types of trade information needed.


Several techniques can be used to assess the information needs of the clients of a trade information service. The best results in many cases can be obtained through a combination of them. These are mail surveys, interviews, meetings and everyday contact.

Mail surveys: Contacting the users of a particular service by letter and/or questionnaire is a method often used to assess their interest in continuing to receive that service, or in seeing the service modified in some way.

In most cases it is not feasible to contact the entire group of users, so a selective survey will have to be undertaken. Various criteria should be used to obtain a representative sample of clients surveyed, such as a selection from different product or industry sectors; or a selection of client enterprises of different sizes, with different lengths of export experience and from different geographical locations. Another option could be a statistical sampling of the entire group of users.

Questionnaires and accompanying letters need to be carefully designed and adapted to the audiences addressed. Several versions may be required, for instance one for companies and another for trade organizations. Drawing up the questionnaire for a mail survey involves, first of all, determining what type of information is to be collected. Three categories of information should be covered: the profile of the responding firm or organization; in the case of a firm responding, its exportable products and main target markets; and the firm's or organization's information needs and expectations. The questionnaire should therefore contain sections on the company profile, product profile and user needs. It is recommended that separate product profiles be requested for each of a firm's export products. The most important part of the questionnaire deals with the specific information needs of users. This is the most complex and probably lengthiest part of the questionnaire.

The questionnaire should be short and simple. It should be detailed enough for the TIS to get the type of information it needs, but at the same time it should not be too long. Otherwise the response rate will be low.

The type of reply required for each question should be clear to the reader. Questions that call for only a "yes" or "no" answer can be used, along with multiple choice, as such replies are easy to tabulate. All such questions and their choice of replies should be numbered to simplify analysis. At the same time, however, provision should be made for some open-ended questions and for additional comments, as these can often be a source of new ideas. The questionnaires should include space for the TIS to enter recording and processing data, such as special codes.

Questionnaires used on a repeated basis for updating, notably to keep company, organization and product profiles current, should be constructed in such a way as to permit respondents to enter changes rapidly, rather than obliging them to repeat information already available from the previous survey.

While mail surveys are a relatively easy way to reach the target audience, this method must often be complemented by other means. One reason is that only a portion (sometimes quite low) of those contacted will respond. Another is that, even if they are simple, questions may be misinterpreted and answers may therefore be misleading.

Interviews: Interviews are an excellent, though time-consuming and expensive, method for following up on mail surveys to get additional information or for entirely replacing questionnaire mailings. Whether or not interviews are used in combination with a mail survey, they should be structured according to a questionnaire (the same one that is mailed out, when such a mailing is combined with the interview method). The answers initially provided in writing can thus be clarified on the spot. Students who have been thoroughly briefed on the purpose of the survey and the type of information required could carry out such interviews. This could help keep costs down.

Users' meetings: Meetings convened for specific user groups or a sampling of the total user population of the trade information provide a good opportunity not only for TIS to exchange views with the group but also to discuss information needs of individual participations, either during the meeting or after it. Such meetings should be convened regularly by a TIS.

Everyday contact: The staff of a TIS are also a good source for keeping up to date on users' information needs. Staff have daily contact with business and trade promotion clients through consultation and/or inquiry-reply services and are thus in a position to keep up to date on their changing interests. A good recording system of inquiries from users can generate useful information on client needs. Staff contacts also furnish valuable feedback on user satisfaction and thus enable the trade information service to take measures to improve its activities.


An assessment of users' needs should not be looked upon as a one-time exercise. Instead it should be a continuous effort. If possible, a special unit within the trade information service should be given responsibility for ensuring the determination of needs on a regular basis. This applies to the mail surveys, interviews, users' meetings and day-to-day feedback through staff.

The collection of company as well as organization profiles should gradually be expanded to cover the entire group of users of the TIS. In the case of company profiles, an exporters' register can be developed as a result of the assessment. A register of other organizations can also be produced, providing not only a picture of this type of user but also serving as reference for information resources for the TIS' work.


The analysis of needs should be followed by a review of the TIS' capacity to meet those needs - its human and financial resources, the cost-effectiveness of providing each type of information service requested and, last but not least, the availability of the required services in other organizations in the country. The TIS can then set its priorities for its services in the future.

Examples of services that the TIS may consider increasing or initiating are access to its library; consultancy services; inquiry-reply services; the provision of information on foreign trade regulations, trade opportunities, tender notices and company credit ratings; lists of importers and buyers; foreign trade statistics; market studies or market briefs; and subscriptions to its publications. Some of the trade information services that are operating the most efficiently have selected a few key activities from among these possibilities and offer users subscriptions to a selection of them (increasingly on a cost-sharing basis). The final selection and setting of priorities by a TIS should reflect the information gathered throughout the assessment process.

Ernst Decsey is head of ITC's Trade Information Research Unit.

PHOTO : To assess needs, details on the users and their products and markets are required.

PHOTO : Evaluation of users' needs should be a continuous process, with a special unit responsible.

PHOTO : Mail surveys can be used alone or with other means to determine clients' requirements.
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Author:Decsey, Ernst
Publication:International Trade Forum
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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