A Easy Guide To Designing Customer Research

Whether or not the customer is always right, the customer is always the one who makes the purchase decision in the end. Over the past few years, more and more companies have shifted to a customer-oriented business strategy as the impressive performance statistics of these businesses roll in. CMO Magazine reported that customer-centric businesses have been 60 percent more profitable than their peers, and nine out of 10 CEOs surveyed in the US have agreed that they will invest in programs to strengthen customer engagement in the year ahead.

Building A Customer Focus Journey

The basic starting point is the customer focus journey. According to the Harvard Business Review, this journey generally follows along four stages:

  1. Info gathering – where the company uses a dedicated team or third party to collect information about their existing customers and desired customer segments.
  2. Data mining – where past customer behavior is analyzed to build a working model of customer motivation and a series of ideal customer personas.
  3. Predictive analytics – where a separate team builds on data analytics to discover and propose future pathways for customer-oriented product and service development.
  4. Active engagement – where customer wishes and preferences are accommodated collaboratively in real time.

One aspect of this journey that may come as a surprise is that many companies, especially startups and entrepreneurs, do not do their own customer research, especially in the early stages. For many, the process of what information to collect, why it is information and how will the information help to make better future decisions is often loosely constructed, if at all, early on.   

There is no question that customer research is a core component of a successful company. Unfortunately, companies that don’t put in the work to know who their customers are or what those customers want are at a substantial disadvantage in competitive markets.

Customer research helps company leadership teams figure out their competitive strategy, product development and go to market including their pricing strategy. Not speaking to your customers puts you in a position where you’re making pricing, product, sales and marketing decisions in a vacuum.

Best Practices For Designing Your Own Customer Research

When it comes to customer research, many entrepreneurs and business leaders share a perception that this is simply too difficult or time-consuming (read: not scalable). Fortunately, that doesn’t have to be the case as long as the research – like any good test – is well structured, well planned and well executed. Here is a useful template for launching your customer research project in the right direction:

1. Define your objectives

Create a clear set of goals your research must help you achieve. This might involve defining the customer segments, identifying customer attributes, preferences for specific features, pricing, etc. Limit yourself to the two or three highest priorities.

Here you want to think about the key questions that you either don’t know or assume to be true about your customers. Be precise in the language you use. Consider how customers would interact with your products/services and which factors would discourage them from engaging with you.

Think two steps ahead of the typical answers customers give. You are looking for insight that gets at what is really needed to move forward with your market strategy. As you build your objectives, consider how the insights from the research will be used. Ultimately, the goal is to design research that is directly actionable and aligned exactly with your top objectives.

2. Define your audience

The next step is to create a persona for the type of customer you want to speak to. Get as detailed as you can about the customer segment. Investigate who your customer are now and think about who you want to attract for the long term. When you find your target, look into where they are spending their time to determine how to attract them. If you can’t tell, ask.

If you still struggle defining your audience, one source of inspiration is ad targeting platforms like Google Ads or Facebook. Facebook’s ads platform is a useful guide on factor defining customer segments; even if you are not going to do Facebook ads.

3. Design your customer research tool

Customize existing tools to fit what you need. Gather data on great online surveys, in-person interviews, focus groups and industry trend reports. Then you can improve and refine them to suit your purposes. Each tool will offer different benefits for collecting the relevant data and insights that go into intelligent, actionable decisions.

While these examples were written with new product development in mind, this open-ended approach can also be helpful for more mature companies and products. Again, what you are really looking for are gaps in your knowledge and challenges to your assumptions about the market, customer, and product.

4. Build-Measure-Learn

The customization in the above point doesn’t end at the interview. You will very probably not get everything you want the first time, but by deploying the Lean Startup‘s methodology of Build-Measure-Learn, you’ll get better with each execution. Eliminate ambiguity from questions, beware of question fatigue, widen your sample and do it again.

Crafting your questions is an art. Don’t rush through the revision process, as this can mean the difference between nice-to-have interesting responses, and actionable insight. One common mistake to avoid are simple yes/no questions but code in structural limits on open-ended ones. Common question types include:

  • How do you do [a process, problem resolution] now?
  • How do you wish that process was different/better?
  • When during your day, do you see this as a significant problem?
  • What kinds of workaround do you currently use to address these and similar problems?
  • Why do you use those specific workarounds?
  • What issues did you face with the current solutions available in the market?

5. Analysis

The last step of this process is to design questions so that they can be analyzed easily. Whether quantitative or qualitative responses, you want to create a functional database of information that can be critically assessed and revisited for comparison over time. Treat your customer research project like a form of test.

From the beginning, you will need clarity on what you’re testing for and how you’ll measure whether this particular test was successful or not.

Final Thoughts

Designing customer interviews can be intensive, but it doesn’t have to be complex. Even the experts use the iterative model to build informed hypotheses, get answers, learn from the data and try again.

With just five steps – defining your objectives, defining your audience, designing your tool, mining the data and measuring the success of the tool – you can help create an agile organization that is customer-oriented and well ahead of the competition.

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