Keeping Up With Customer Needs

Businesses of all sizes and types are concerned with staying abreast of constantly changing customer and consumer expectations. The information age we are in represents both challenges and opportunities for doing this. The challenges are related to the sheer volume of information we now have available to use. The opportunities are related to the same thing! As both a small business person and a marketing consultant, I approach keeping us with customer needs from a couple of different perspectives:

  • As a small business person I feel the best way to stay on top of what’s important to my customers is to get to know them, to ask a lot of questions and to listen well. The key is gaining a sense of their “pain points” — what are they most concerned about? what do they most hope for? what keeps them up at night? Finding out can be as straightforward as asking them, or it can involve simply being very observant and “reading between the lines.”
  • As a marketer, I would offer that same advice, but add the importance of doing ongoing research — or environmental scanning — to detect changes in needs and preferences among, and within, target audiences. This is very easy and inexpensive to do these days through online research, monitoring social media chatter, setting up RSS feeds to track or monitor certain topics, etc. Another great way to do this is through establishing a Group — on LinkedIn, for instance, to engage in conversations with your audience. I work with a couple of clients that do this quite successfully — their highly trafficked and very engaged Groups provide them with  ready-made focus groups of literally hundreds of people whose “natural” opinions they can monitor on an ongoing basis.
When most people think about research they think about quantitative research — often surveys. The most statistically significant form of research would be a survey conducted based on a random sample of a known audience. However, that’s not the only form of research that can provide value for small — or even large — businesses. There are a multitude of other options. For instance:
  • Observation. Observation can be a valuable form of information for small businesses and simply involves observing or watching people. So, for instance, a retailer might observe how people shop — what do they look at, how long do they spend in certain areas of the store or with certain products? Do certain displays attract more attention than others? This type of information is important because it reflects *actual* behavior — surveys, regardless of how scientifically relevant and expertly done are always subject to respondents’ often biased perceptions of what they *might* do.
  • From an online standpoint, observation research can be done through analytics – a really powerful source of low-cost information on consumer behaviors. Tests can be created by using various ads, or sending different types of email marketing messages to see which generate the most response. Web site copy and content can be modified and monitored to determine what resonates most with visitors, etc.
  • Secondary research. There is a great deal of secondary research information available these days and it is often very relevant. Secondary research is simply information that others have gathered. This could be other marketers, other businesses like yours, trade associations, educational institutions or the government. While the information may not be exactly aligned with your target audience in terms of geography, for instance, it can still provide valuable insights — and at far less cost than doing original research.
  • Focus groups. Focus groups provide an opportunity to “dig deep” into consumers opinions. Generally small gatherings of 8-10 people, focus groups are basically “guided discussions” designed to assess participants’ opinions about products and services. When conducting focus groups having a skilled, non-biased, facilitator is critical.
  • Polling – polls can easily be conducted online through web sites or through social media outlets like LinkedIn — they’re not statistically significant, but can provide some insights and information that might direct future research and, when done on an ongoing basis, trends can be identified and monitored.
  • Opinion surveys. Businesses have a ready-made opportunity to gather information from their customers during and after the interactions customers have with them. This can be done through comment cards or online surveys. Following up with customers via email and including a link to a brief survey can be a great way to gather information.
  • Surveys. Many of the surveys done are *not* statistically significant these days, especially those done online. That’s not necessarily a “bad thing,” but it’s important for small businesses to exercise caution when making decisions based on information that may not be statistically reliable. Surveys can be done through tools like Survey Monkey, Zoomerang, etc., and can be a quick, convenient and cost-effective way to gather input from customers, prospects or consumers in general.

Of course, while many options exist, businesses–especially small businesses–can find it challenging to find the time to conduct the ongoing research that can help them make sound decisions. That’s where organizations like ours come into play!  Need help? Let us know.

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