IF you are running a pound;7.3 billion business and you want to get the punters in, what is the best way to keep your customers and attract new ones?
Research organisations from the Learning and Skills Development Agency to the universities and the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education spend millions probing the educational arguments and mapping the nation's needs.
But Bryan Sanderson, chairman of the Learning and Skills Council, was amazed, when he took office last April, that no one was asking customers in significant numbers what they actually wanted. "Britain is poor at collecting data on learning and skills. Go to the States and this information is there in swathes," he said.
His business instincts told him that the consumers ("learners") were not tested in any depth for their attitudes or motivation.
Mr Sanderson is mindful of the pitfalls of exaggerating the role of the customer. "If it turns out that everyone wants to be either a brickie or hairdresser, do you seriously turn the whole training sector round to cater for such narrow goals? Of course you do not."
The fundamental point he learned as chairman of BP is that "you cannot change attitudes unless you know what those attitudes are".
A research base that addresses only the nation's needs and the perceptions of providers will always fall short of the mark, he said, in an interview with FE Focus to launch the first such national survey of consumers.
But can you sell education and training as though it were so many gallons of unleaded from a petrol pump? Again, he said, of course not. However, without a clearer idea of what motivates people to learn and where they want to learn it, "we cannot shape policy to meet out targets," he said. What he was doing at BP - and now repeating as chair of BUPA - was to turn the consumer on to the product.
"The impact of the consumer in private industry is enormous."
When BP carried out such research they were in for a shock. "The petrol station is the flagship, so it is important to have public perceptions for success. We found that the colour green was well received. It had good connotations to do with the environment."
But when they probed further, they found that long-held assumptions were wrong. It was thought that men bought most of the petrol. "But six out of 10 purchases were by women and they said the shield (logo) was aggressive and hard - hence our new logo."
Something in excess of pound;2 million will be spent over the next five years asking 110,000 learners - through independent pollsters NOP - what they think of the education and training offered to them. Mr Sanderson is hoping the survey will do for education what similar research did for BP. "It resulted in a 10 per cent rise in sales."
The LSC survey will ask a representative sample of 16-year-olds what they think of choices offered, what they want and what motivates them. Tests of customer satisfaction will help compare types of learning and judge where colleges and sixth forms score.
But, he said: "Instant results aren't all that enlightening. You get the valuable results over time."
Many colleges do similar studies on a smaller local scale. The LSC work is intended to supplement, not duplicate, local surveys by colleges and other providers. Nor is it meant to be exact science. "We don't test them to the last percentage point - we are interested in trends.
"I'm very concerned about how we get to the bottom 20 per cent of the population who, typically, dropped out of school - how we get them back into learning."
The survey will be conducted three times a year, with about 8,000 students interviewed by telephone each time. Fieldwork for the first survey started this week.
"We are not intending the survey to be a check on local provision or on individual colleges and other providers. However, the findings will play an important role in helping to shape LSC policy," he said.