While surveys are useful at collecting information on customers and how they feel about certain interactions, products or services there are other ways to gain meaningful insights.
First let’s define what we mean by customer insights:
Customer Insights Defined: a deep understanding of a customer’s needs and behaviors—both known needs that the customer can identify, and the latent needs that they cannot.
It also helps to begin by framing the type of customer insight you are looking to uncover. There are 4 main categories of customer insights that are useful to driving business performance.
1. Strategic Customer Insights – these are used to inform the company’s strategy by understanding what unique market segments exist in the marketplace. For example in the telecommunications industry there are a wide range of different types of customers with unique needs. Some customers now use smartphones as their primary internet device, their needs will be different from customers that still use cell phones primarily for phone calls and text messages.
A deep understanding of the needs of different market segments allows a company to determine which segments are most attractive. This customer insight also allows a company to identify where it needs to improve its own value proposition in order to attract and retain customers from each segment.
2. Program Specific Insights – these are insights specific to a component of a business strategy. For example, a manufacturer looking to roll out a training program to its retailers would need insight into the most effective methods to educate retailers. Should training be conducted in person, via a webcast or through a self service portal?
3. Product and Service Insights – these are direct inputs into how products or services could be improved. A great example of this in action is “My Starbucks Idea”, an online brainstorming tool driven by customers. Customers share ideas and other customers can vote on them so the best customer driven ideas rise to the top.
4. Insights for Marketing Communications – understanding what media and mediums customer’s use to get information informs how companies can more effectively reach and communicate with potential customers. For example if the customer group in question is predominantly focused on using social media, understanding which social media platforms they are most engaged in will help direct communication resources.
So now to the question of how to generate insights without surveys…
Customer insights can initially be generated from reviewing existing publicly available research and data as well as data internally available to the company. This often involves internal interviews with experts in markets and front line people that interact with customers on a regular basis. While this is useful it is secondary research, a review of what already exists and while it can generate new insights it is more useful for gaining alignment around what the company already knows about customers.
To gain deeper unique insights an ongoing process should be implemented that involves primary research. This doesn’t need to be complicated or only handled by marketing research profession in fact it is more impactful when people across the organization are involved.
Customer Immersion Activities
The most time and cost effective way to generate insights is to simply talk with customers. In today’s world this can include a range of mediums from one on one interviews to focus groups to online forums like the one Starbucks runs or Ideastorm, Dell’s equivalent.
Now I realize that technology products and coffee are highly engaging products with many willing participants, what if you sell toilet paper or a product that inspires less passion?
For these less inspiring categories a great source of insight can be customer complaints. Barbara Buchanan has written a great article titled “Mining Complaints and Negative Social Media May Have Positive Consequences” including some examples from the banking and manufacturing industry. The key is making it easy for customers to complain and provide feedback in real time, in the moment. For example a Hospital in California installed posters around the hospital with a QR codes. Patients can scan the QR code on their phones and immediately send a manager a message about an issue. Managers receive these in the form of text messages and commit to responding immediately and resolving issues as fast as possible. Patient satisfaction has doubled in the past several quarters as a result.
Going Deeper by Observing Customer Behavior
Ethnographic research can provide deep insights into people’s behaviors and unmet needs by taking a holistic view of customers in their own environment.
This is a more expensive technique but can yield unique insights. A great example comes from a day in the life analysis of women cleaning their homes in Italy. A US company after failing to gain success with an all purpose cleaner for the home in the Italian market, undertook ethnographic research to understand why the product was failing. It discovered that Italian women spent 4 times as much time cleaning their homes than US women. They were fastidious and extremely house proud. They used specific cleaners for specific jobs as they believed an all purpose cleaner simply would not get the job done. These insights allowed the company to reposition the cleaner to focus on meeting a more specific need – benchtop cleaning. The repositioning resulted in a much more successful launch into the italian market.
Piloting New Products or Services
This involves putting new products or services in front of customers to gain direct feedback. A modern version of this can be seen on websites like Kickstarter, where entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs can essentially describe a product or service and raise funding for the idea. This is really the ultimate way to test concepts, will customers pay for it? One of the most successful products launched on Kickstarter is the Pebble Watch. It launched 18 months prior to Apple announcing their own iWatch. It is now raising funding for its second version and has raised almost $10 million to date.
Mining Social Media
The last incredible source of rich customer insight exists within a wide range of social media including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yelp, Pinterest and other online communities. There are a range of different companies that can help mine this online data and distill sentiment and feedback in a meaningful and actionable manner. A great list of the top 50 tools is provided here by Pam Dyer.
While surveys remain a great way to elicit direct feedback on specific topics of interest to the company, there are many other ways to generate insights that should be incorporated into every company’s way of doing business.