Customer Research: Overlooked & Underutilized Ways to Understand Customers

by Jeannie Walters

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What Does Customer Research Mean to You?

When you hear the term customer research, what comes to mind?

Most organizations have a Voice of the Customer (or VoC) program; maybe that’s the first thing you think of. Voice of the Customer programs help organizations keep a finger on the pulse of how they’re meeting customer needs, with VoC data revealing how customers feel about the brand, their experience, and specific interactions and touchpoints at scale.

Maybe you think of market research, which can tell you about who your prospects and customers are, and the basics of what they care about within your industry or market.

Or how about behavioral analytics, which helps us understand what customers do and how they behave on our digital platforms and other channels?

But those are all types of customer research. What is customer research, really?

Here’s my definition: No matter the type, customer research is an ongoing pursuit to understand our customers better that drives us to bigger, more comprehensive, and more complex research strategies.

And while it certainly encompasses the common methods mentioned above, customer research comes in many other forms than these.

No matter who you are, your customers have more to share. And some of the simplest and most effective methods are right in front of us.

A word of warning: These are not all the most scientific or scalable options. But they still bring the customer’s perspective closer to the brand.

Not all of these may be a fit for you or your organization. But if you feel disconnected or just too far away from customers, even with all that data and research, try a few of these ideas to reconnect with the individuals behind those numbers.

Talk to A Customer

This isn’t about talking to ALL customers. This is about listening to one customer at a time.

One of our most popular resources is our 21-Day Customer Experience Challenge, with 21 days worth of simple, actionable missions, guidance and inspiration. One day’s challenge is to call a customer.

That’s it. Simple, right?

There are so many ways to reach out to customers and just ask them, “How are we doing? What can we do to make it better?” It’s hard to know who customers are if we never actually talk to them!

Do make sure you have their permission to contact them first before reaching out… but as long as you do, give one or more of these variations a try:

Call one customer on the phone. 

If you’re an executive who’s a few layers away from the actual customer experience, this one’s especially for you.

  • Start by referring to Net Promoter Scores or other metrics to select customers you know have opinions to share.
  • Call a promoter one week and a detractor the next, and listen for ways the promoters and detractors describe their journey differently.
  • Keep a log to identify themes. Document what you hear but mostly just keep a very open mind and heart.

Get to know this customer and what motivates them. Then get to know the next one.

After one or three or ten calls, you’ll start seeing customers as real people. You’ll think of Sally or José when planning your next product.

Email certain customers with a specific set of open-ended questions.

This is a great exercise for contact center leaders, serving as a way to get feedback from a random sample of customers who contacted them for support.

The key is to make sure the questions are specific enough that they give you focused information, but open-ended enough that your customer has the agency to speak freely.

Let’s look at three examples. Which one gets it right?

  • Example 1: “For which of these five reasons did you contact us?”
  • Example 2: “How was your experience?”
  • Example 3: “Tell us about why you contacted us.”

Example 1, while specific to one moment (the customer’s decision to contact you), it isn’t really open-ended.

Example 2, while open-ended, isn’t specific enough that you can extract any meaningful trends from the feedback.

Example 3 is in the Goldilocks zone — just right. This is still focused on the decision to contact you, but puts no constraints on their answer. It’s more personal and meaningful.

Asking customers to tell you things in their words is very meaningful to the customer and can uncover things you hadn’t considered. Asking specific questions allows you to identify similar themes or obstacles that aren’t necessarily showing up in the reporting.

Together, they offer a powerful opportunity to learn.

Reach out proactively and personally after a certain amount of time post-sale or using the product.

Your data can guide you here, too. Reach out to customers via text (again — make sure you have permission in advance!) and ask how they are using the app they installed.

Don’t do this in a way that can be confused for automated messaging. Use names and real language.

B2B organizations can do this by reaching out to end-user teams for their products. Checking in like this gives customers a chance to share feedback as well as provide a moment of engagement otherwise overlooked.

Of course, not all customer research requires a conversation. Sometimes it’s enough to…

Observe and Listen

The key to observing is to stay humble. Employees may make mistakes, processes will fail, and products won’t work as planned.

That’s ok. Observation isn’t about micromanagement or penalizing employees when things don’t go as expected. It’s about identifying opportunities to improve for the future.

Try these observation methods to humbly learn a thing or two:

Observe customers where and how they use your product or service.

Software and technology companies often refer to this as the “follow me home” method. Companies send representatives to literally sit with customers where they are and observe how they use their product in their real environments, with real-world limitations.

  • Are customers using your product or service the way that you intended them to?
  • Are customers getting confused or hung up at any point?
  • Is your product or service delivering the way you expected it to?

I once spent two days camped out in a bank lobby to just watch how customers interacted with tellers and the environment.

It was fascinating. More than that, it ultimately led to meaningful change.

These types of “sit and watch” techniques are super helpful to uncover unsaid challenges and opportunities.

Listen in on contact center calls.

Contact center agents have a hard job: They’re usually juggling several different programs and asked to categorize all the inquiries. That’s all very important, but when we ask our contact center agents to quickly categorize things, some of the nuance can get lost.

To get a more detailed picture of both specific statements and overall themes, sometimes it helps to just listen to a call. Listening can happen live or in a pre-recorded setting, but the key is to listen for what’s not reported.

Listening in can help you identify those bigger, more nebulous challenges in the customer’s experience to start exploring.

Pay attention to customer communities and user forums.

Customers will ask peers for direction here and explain specific challenges. They will ask for help in finding workarounds and alternative solutions.

All of those requests are signals to you where customers are required to put in too much effort!

They’re also a great place to look for those super users. These customers can become advocates and share feedback in meaningful ways… but they have to be asked.

And don’t forget social media! Now that many organizations have a social media marketing team or a social media support team, it’s easy to forget about the customers who are interacting there.

Customers have a lot to say on social media, so check in often and see how they’re engaging, not just with your brand but in general.

  • Go beyond just searching for mentions or tracking sentiment with software (though that helps!) and really explore what customers are discussing.
  • What’s drawing a lot of attention?
  • What are the requests made that aren’t getting a lot of attention but could lead to issues later?

A great way to use social media is to seek out the personas you use internally “in the wild.” Find real people who resemble your persona and see what groups they join, what questions they have, and what connections they make.

Customers are at the Heart of All Customer Data

It’s wonderful to be able to gauge how customers feel and behave at scale to move programs forward. It can be addicting to follow ratings like NPS go up and down. All of that is important to creating great customer experiences.

But customers are people, nuanced and imperfect, just like all of us. It never hurts to slow down just a bit and listen to that one person in that one moment. That’s what leads to connecting with customers in the very best ways.

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Jeannie Walters

Jeannie Walters is the CEO/Founder of Experience Investigators, a global Customer Experience consulting firm. She has 20 years of experience helping companies improve loyalty and retention, employee engagement, and overall customer experience.

Jeannie is a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP,) a charter member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA,) a Professional Member of the National Speakers Association, LinkedIn Learning instructor, TEDx speaker, and President-Elect of the National Speakers Association Illinois chapter.

Learn more here.

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