Customer-research – why small businesses must take notice

Focus group
Focus group

Customer research taking the shape of a focus group (startup I’m working with)

Customer research is a huge topic. It’s everywhere. I’ve been involved with several customer research projects in the last year, and I can’t get enough of it.

It was an intuitive decision to go out to the streets of St. Margarets last year when Digital Heart was just a thought in my head, to interview shop owners about how they perceived the internet as a sales channel and how they felt about  their web presence. I discovered things I wouldn’t have guessed otherwise. For example how disappointed many businesses had been with the results of previous website development projects, and how little they actually knew about how to find the best designer/developer, and how to manage digital projects successfully.

Doing these interviews helped me work out what Digital Heart’s value proposition should be.

I’m working with a tech startup at the moment on a “discovery project”, to explore market need and identify the best audience segment to be targeted for their new product. It’s wonderful to see people with vast experience in user and customer research at work. They manage to do what can generally be very difficult for business founders to do – keeping a truly open mind, challenging every single aspect of their idea to ensure they create products people will buy. Avoiding bias is hard when building questionnaires, especially if you are convinced at the benefits of your solution and possess strong beliefs on how and why it should be used. It can be achieved however with much careful thought.

In the last few weeks I myself took the research-subject seat and got the chance to observe it from the other side. It’s rather fun, somebody taking an interest in what you have to say and quite often paying for the pleasure! Highly recommended.

thumb down Without research things get risky

When I worked in the publishing industry I had the opportunity to see how the lack of customer research can result in poor performance. I managed several product and web development projects, with varying levels of customer-consultation. We all agreed at the time that it would be good to get the views of the customer, but didn’t really know how to do it properly.
There were enough enthusiastic people in the company to feed back on website usability. Enough to know what worked well and what didn’t. Spending money and effort on asking customers for their feedback regarding website usability would have been only marginally beneficial.
However, the organisation’s value proposition was NEVER properly tested. This, to my opinion, is a great shame.

The board agreed to hire a PR agency, ideas were generated and implemented, but without research the only way to confirm that the main brand concepts were working as hoped, was to check the bottom line a year later.

This is far too risky a method.

Where to start?

Try to include both qualitative and qualitative research efforts. Qualitative involves face-to-face meetings and therefore can have depth but limited breath, and quantitative is used to confirm your ideas through a survey that can be sent to a much bigger audience, even thousands.

1. Interview customers and prospects, or other relevant people in your network – sit down for a cup of coffee and find out what their problems are. Let them talk and gently guide the conversation. This will help you determine how to help resolve these problems for them. 5-10 interviews should do it.
2. Run focus groups – this is optional. Group discussions and exercises can be very useful in different ways to personal interviews. Be sure to observe people’s reactions and feelings about things. You can recruit people to focus groups through one of the market research agencies below:

Field Initiatives These are great for getting business people
Focus Force Cheap consumer database
Focus4People Good for consumers

3. Create a survey to confirm or invalidate your conclusions from the qualitative research, and send it to as many relevant people as possible. Use your network, your website, social media, your newsletter subscribers, CRM contacts, and any other means.
Here are some cheap online survey solutions which you can publish on your site or email:

Wufoo – easy to use!
Survey Monkey
Survey Gizmo

The insight and confidence you will take from this type of research is invaluable. You will learn new things, and be able to confirm or disprove your theories before committing money and effort into building or improving your product/campaign.

Spreading the word

The notion of being able to test every hypothesis through well-conducted research for a minimal budget is something I find exciting, and so should you. I’m making it my personal mission to introduce these ideas to small businesses and help them test their ideas before finalising products and campaigns.

First published on March 31, 2014

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