I probably don’t have to tell you that it is not uncommon for market and/or customer research to result in uninformative or somewhat random data or information that is unactionable. Why? Most often it is because we aren’t asking the right questions. We aren’t asking questions that are truly important to the customer relationship.
It’s critical to your research success to zero in on what truly matters, on the information that is impactful. And that may mean a fundamental rethinking about how you collect and process information. And in my experience it almost certainly means you should reevaluate what you’re asking. Tying your market and customer research to what’s critical to customers and potential customers is the way to go.
Get the Right Voices Together
Typically a research initiative works best with a small, carefully chosen group leading the way. Make sure that you get a set of different perspectives – leadership, salespeople, customer service people, back office staff, etc. They will all bring different perspectives about the customer to the conversation. Don’t be afraid to involve individuals who will speak their mind and challenge the team to ask the right questions. And let’s face it; most customer and market research is focused on what the company wants to know about you. They tend to be superficial are often designed to avoid the difficult, fundamental questions. Don’t let this be you. Don’t waste your time. You’re investing resources into this, make it truly useful and informative. And that begins with having the right people “in the room”.
Have the Customer Drive
In order to avoid the superficial nature of many research pieces, your team should strive to center the inquiries around the fundamentals of the customer relationship. That’s the key to getting great information. those issues that are truly important to the customer is the proper focus for your research efforts.
Begin by having your team agree on the fundamental nature of the customer and their buying decisions. That means having a deep understanding of the customer you are targeting. Strive to envision the ideal customer – what they do each day, their various characteristics such as income, gender, geography, etc. for consumers and organization size, revenue, industry sector, etc. for organizations. Truly try to imagine what they look like as a living. breathing person. Ask yourself what problems this customer has…and how your product or service solves it for them better than anyone else’s. Keep digging until you feel you have a satisfactory answer to that question.
This sort of discussion should already be a fundamental part of your organization’s strategic planning process. Understanding what fundamentally drives your customer should be central to your vision and strategic direction. And this should be where you focus your research questioning. At its core we’re asking “What’s important to you as a customer when you try – and how are we doing in those areas?”. And following that up with some additional information such as “How are those needs changing?”. Additional lines of inquiry might be appropriate, but these should be at the center of your research.
If you have difficulty defining this core element of your business (and many of us do), then you have your first piece of market research to conduct. Using that characteristics-description you’ve developed (you’ll often hear this referred to as some variant of your “ideal customer avatar”), develop a list of organizations and/or individuals that fit that mold. You are going to interview as many of these as you can. And the goal of the conversation is relatively simple. To the root of their needs and challenges and how they search for and find solutions. You should probe for what an ideal relationship would look like from their perspective.
Often these are best structured as informal conversations, calls, or focus groups. And if you have some current customers that fit the mold, invite some of them to participate. It’s important to note that this is NOT a sales call. You simply want to better understand their needs and how they search for a solution. (And, yes, you should be willing to pay them a little something for their time and honest opinions.)
At the end of this exercise (which could take a few days or even weeks), you should have a very good idea of the basic components of the customer’s needs. But don’t forget that this is a very small sample size. While useful knowledge, it’s not information that you can or should extrapolate to the rest of the market. Think of it as a small seed. You have some limited information, but it really needs to grow dramatically before it bears real fruit. Which leads to your next step – more broad-based research.
Listen and Learn
Use what you now know about customers and their needs and begin to draft your research questions. And THAT’S the key to useful and actionable market and customer research is to base it squarely on the customer relationship from the customers’ points-of-view, not yours.
Too often we fool ourselves into asking questions of customers and our target market that fit into our predefined mold. We guide their answers based on what we want them to say. Deep down we want them to say we are doing well, that we a spot-on in our understanding of them. But in order to get the best from your research (which is good for you AND good for the marketplace), you may have to undergo a mindset shift. We need to be more like a good investigator. We need to let the evidence take us wherever it will take us. Our companies will be better for it. And we will better serve our target markets. This requires an openness, a willingness to learn more about what motivates our ideal customer.
I know this may seem like a lot of work just to check off that “Conduct Market Research” box on your action plan. But that’s the point. Research into customers and markets should never just be a check-mark on a list. It’s a real opportunity to learn and improve. It’s a chance to obtain information that will help your organization deliver better solutions to your clearly-understood target market. It will help lead to your organization down the path of longer-term success. It will help continue shifting your organization’s culture toward customer understanding and focus. These are huge fundamental wins. These are fundamental to your organization’s success.
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