Whether you work in marketing, sales, product or even finance, getting out to speak with your customers is invaluable.

Regardless of if you work in a multinational FMCG company, the financial sector, a not-for-profit or a start-up, the customer is the most important stakeholder in every decision your business makes, so talking to a few of them seems like a pretty smart idea.

Of course, when it comes to conducting customer interviews, sending out surveys and collating insights, method overrules madness. Employing some fundamental principles and ground rules will ensure that you are making the most of this opportunity, and not leading yourself or your customer astray.

In this article we will explore: 

  • 1. Guerilla research
  • 2. Qualitative research
    • a. Customer research
    • b. Focus group
    • c. Ethnographic research
  • 3. Quantitative research
    • a. Customer surveys
    • b. Website/social data
    • c. CRM data

1. What's this guerilla research thing all about?

Let’s get this one out of the way first. The principles of guerrilla research, originally adopted by product managers and UX designers, have started to gain traction across other disciplines. This method encourages one to just get out, hit the pavement, and start asking questions. Of course, I love the agility of this principle, and the concept that it doesn’t require a massive budget or months of planning to really start finding out what your customer thinks, but it’s important to highlight that there are a few inherent risks.

Firstly, in the process of conducting guerilla research, it’s still important to have some structure if you want to collect any data that is useful. Standardising questioning is key. If you change your set of questions between each interview, then you have no benchmark to measure against.

Secondly, guerilla research is only effective if you target people who are in your core demographic, or if your value proposition is designed to be general enough to appeal to everyone. For example, asking Sue in accounts, who is in her mid 50’s, if a piece of video content you’ve created will appeal to Gen Z males is only going to provide opinion, and not actual insight.

Lastly, ad hoc guerilla research can occasionally lead you astray. One person’s opinion in a coffee shop is not necessarily going to be indicative of your wider target market. Randomly approaching people without fully briefing them into the process can strongly influence the way they respond to questioning. For example, if you thrust a product or a campaign creative in front of someone random, there is a strong chance that rather than offering constructive feedback, they will ‘save face’, which can also lead to false insights.

With all of this said, you can start guerilla research immediately if you choose to, and that can often be better than nothing. At the end of the day, if you are talking to real people, then you are on the right track.

street

Hit the pavement and start asking questions = Guerilla research 

Qualitative or quantitative?

Broadly speaking when it comes to customer research it helps to ensure you try to collect both qualitative and quantitative data to paint a full picture. There are many ways to collect insights and my general guidance for those starting out is to firstly decide what you are trying to determine and then select the research methods that will best help you on that path.

Don’t try to do everything. One method from each bucket is generally enough to give you the guidance you need, especially if you are just starting out.

2. Qualitative

There are several highly effective qualitative research techniques, which include customer interviews, focus groups and ethnographic research. All three of these can be highly effective in their own right, and the correct method depends on your time, budget and overall goals.

a. Customer research

Customer interviews are one of the quickest, yet most effective ways of generating insights. This is a chance to sit down with someone who is either not yet a customer, is currently a customer, or is no longer a customer of your business, and whilst they can seem relatively straight forward, there are some key factors to consider.

Firstly, ensure you have a script. Informal questioning can be messy. Be clear about exactly what you want to know, and restrict your questioning to focus on that. It’s okay to dig deeper into something using 'but why?' methodology, but generally, try to keep your questioning on track. Specifically, if you intend to interview several customers, this consistency ensures that you are can compare responses.

I typically get asked how many interviews one should conduct, and despite this being like asking how long a piece of string is, I’d suggest you stop asking when you know what the answer is going to be. Once you’ve detected a common trend, then you generally have enough information to make an informed decision.

Secondly, and most importantly, the biggest risks with qualitative interviewing, and a downfall I’ve witnessed countless times, is the interviewer, sometimes inadvertently, leading the customer to validate decisions they’ve already made. It sounds obvious, but it’s surprisingly difficult to not show bias during qualitative interviews, particularly if you are close to the subject being discussed. For this reason, it can help to employ someone impartial to conduct the interviews, or vet your script with someone else prior to the interview and then make sure you don’t stray from it.

Thirdly, when it comes to customer interviews, try to ensure you ask open questions. Anything that elicits a yes/no response is a waste of time for both you and the interviewee. Try to phrase your questions using pretexts of ‘What if’, ‘how’ and ‘why’. Below are some examples of good and bad questioning: 

  • Bad: Do you like this campaign creative? Good: How does this campaign creative make you feel?
  • Bad: How many times do you anticipate you would visit our website each week? Good: Describe your online behaviour and what would make you visit our website?
  • Bad: Do you like using the product? Good: What types of product do you like to use?

dog on a lead

Leading questions are a no-no

The final principles of qualitative interviewing techniques come down to common sense.

  • Respect the interviewees time. If you run out of time, end the interview.
  • Try to conduct interviews face to face where possible, or at the minimum via video conference, so you can also observe body language.
  • Use some form of predefined template to record and track your responses. A tool like Google Forms can be super useful, even if just for yourself to fill out the answers as you go, as it will collate multiple interviews into one spreadsheet automatically.
  • Select interviewees who are representative of your core segment.

b. Focus groups

Conducting focus groups follows a similar principle to what’s outlined above, but again with several key considerations. As conducting a focus group is generally a significant investment in time and resource, it’s important to ensure effectiveness.

The optimum focus group size in my experience is between 6-8 people. This ensures that they are manageable, yet also insightful. When selecting participants, try to choose those who are demographically different, but share an opinion about your product or service.

Effective facilitation is critical when it comes to conducting a focus group, and a good facilitator is worth their weight in gold. It’s important to make sure that everyone has the chance to have their voice heard, but that you also keep to the agenda whilst drawing out real insights.

Where possible, if conducting a focus group, I’d strongly recommend using gamification where possible. Asking participants to sort a series of cards into a perceived order, or sketch on a pad can often be far more effective than long winded conversations. Similar principles to one-to-one customer interviews also apply here:

  • Keep to time
  • Don’t use leading questions
  • Try to illicit open responses
  • Avoid introducing bias

Lastly, it can be very useful to have a second facilitator in the room for a focus group, primarily to act as a scribe. Over the course of two hours you are likely to unearth a lot of information. Noting this down and categorising it appropriately as the session is underway is much more efficient.

focus group

Try to gamify focus groups

Ethnographic research

Ethnographic research, in many ways, is the quickest and fastest technique for qualitative research, as it involves just observing potential or existing customers from a distance. The most critical factor when conducting ethnographic research, is that you should not interfere with the participant at all, as to do so introduces bias. It’s also often better if you can conduct this research without the person knowing that their behaviour is being observed, but this is not always possible, or legal for that matter.

Whether you are watching someone interact with your website, an app or even in a physical store, you want to ask the following questions:

  • Which path did they follow to get where they wanted to go, and what touchpoints did they interact with?
  • Were there any specific pain points or barriers that slowed them down?
  • Are there specific behavioral patterns that you can observe when watching repeated visits or interactions?
  • Does the customer show any specific emotional response throughout the journey, or do they remain dissonant? 

After the observation session has taken place, a debrief interview can provide further insights, and the rules outlined earlier should once again be followed. Use questions such as ‘why did you do that?’ or ‘how did it make you feel?’, to really dig out valuable insights. Once again, when deciding how many observation sessions to conduct, you should run as many as it takes until you can detect a similar pattern or trend. 

Quantitative 

Quantitative research is much better suited to testing specific hypotheses or validating assumptions. There are several sources one can use to collect quantitative data, the most popular being customer surveys. Additionally, first party data sources such as owned websites, social pages and CRM systems can also be fantastic places to gather quantitative insights. Let’s discuss each.

Customer surveys 

Often overused, rarely well thought-out, the customer survey is a tricky beast which requires careful planning and distribution to have any chance of being useful. There are a plethora of free and paid survey tools out there, so the first consideration is which platform to use. For basic surveys, I would suggest a tool like Google Forms will suffice. If you wish to perform more advanced data mining and analysis, or have complicated logic you need to integrate, then tools such as Survey Monkey or Survey Gizmo are worth investigating.

google forms

Google Forms

There are many ways to distribute a customer survey, whether you are emailing to a database, promoting through paid media, or even collecting responses in person (such as at a trade show), the survey should adhere to a few basic principles:

  • Less is more – No-one, I repeat, no-one, likes to wade their way through a 100-question survey. Only ask what you absolutely need to know.
  • Use quantitative question types, like multiple choice, as much as possible. ‘Free text’ questions are difficult to collate and review.
  • Making specific questions compulsory is fine, but again, avoid doing this for ‘free text’ questions, unless this information is critical.
  • Clearly set expectations at the start of the survey. If you say it will take 5 minutes, then it should not take more than 5 minutes. Also ensure you include a progress tracker.
  • Be explicit about how you will use participants' information. If you don’t need it, don’t collect it
  • If sending the same survey out to several different groups of people, ensure you include an indicator so you can segment the data. Another alternative is to use time stamps, geolocation or unique URL’s that lead to the same survey link
  • Incentives can skew results. If the incentive is too large, then people will just blindly click their way through the questions rather than actively participating
  • If time and the platform permits, use logic to help make the whole survey as frictionless as quick as possible. There is nothing more infuriating than answering ‘no’ to one question to then be bombarded with another series of questions that are completely irrelevant
  • Optimised the survey for mobile (ie - can you see all of the possible answers without needing to scroll)

Aim for at least 100 responses to your survey, across your chosen segment. This will typically be enough to accurately represent the mean. As always, some careful planning and considerations before the survey is distributed can save you hours of work when crunching the data. 

Website/social data

Google Analytics is an incredibly powerful, free tool that is often overlooked by teams outside of marketing, particularly when it comes to better understanding your customers. There is no better quantitative source of data available other than customer traffic to and around your website. If you are also in the process of developing a mobile app, it’s well worth looking at Firebase, which will consolidate reporting into one dashboard.

By setting up Google Analytics properly, you can analyze how the user navigates through the website, which is particularly valuable when optimising the customer journey. Furthermore, you can examine where traffic to the website is coming from, which is important when understanding the customer journey.

In addition to your owned web properties and apps, it can often be extremely helpful to explore more generally what people are saying about your brand, product or category online. There is a plethora of free social listening tools which can help with this. Whilst this is often utilized to define content strategy, it is also a super useful process for product or campaign development.

At it’s very simplest, Google Trends allows you to view real time, indexed search data on your chosen topics, which can be broken down over specific timescales and cordoned geographically. Other useful tools I've come across include Social Mention and Answer The Public which each offer a slightly different perspective, with some clever visualisation features.

google trends

Google Trends

CRM data

Your CRM or any sales data you collect is a fantastic resource for insights. It goes without saying that this will only be as robust as you make it, so investing time to ensure you have set up the CRM properly is vital. Ask yourself what data is worth collecting and what you will use it for. Looking for trends based on customer locations or temporal patterns could lead to some interesting insights, as could looking at commonality in the path to purchase or the behaviour of your most valuable customers. 

Using your CRM for customer research takes time and planning, but is well worth the effort. Often CRM systems are only accessed by the sales department, but they are an incredibly powerful tool for the rest of the organisation, particularly when it comes to getting a better understanding of your customers, their pain points and where you can potentially create additional value. 

Regardless of whether you are a small business, there are multitudes of benefits to having a CRM system in place, and a host of amazing cloud based solutions out there with reasonable pricing schemes. It's hard to go past Salesforce for overall functionality and flexibility, but if you are a small business using the Google suite of tools, then Prosperworks is well worth checking out.

Keep in mind that your own customer data will help you segment and understand who is buying and using your products or services. It can also help you look for commonality between lapsed customers, which can be used to inform marketing or product decisions.

In conclusion

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to conducting customer research but what I have outlined here are some of the basic principles that I have found useful. It's not exhaustive, so if you have any tips of your own, feel free to add them in the comments.

The best advice I can give you is to use what you've got, but make sure you get out and talk to real customers. Assuming you know what they think is the biggest mistake a business can make.

And lastly, remember that if you are setting out to conduct customer research it’s important that you find the absolute truth, not just try to validate what you already think.

Nicholas Villani

Published 17 August, 2017 by Nicholas Villani

Nick is a digital consultant at Discursive Labs and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can connect with him via LinkedIn.

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