As a former product manager, I love working with clients who want to understand their customers better before they put together messaging and develop a content program.
Here are 5 ways to get closer to your customers. The more methods you use, the more your messaging and content will resonate.
#1 Talk to your customer-facing employees
This could be sales, consulting, or customer service, and it’s a logical place to start. After all, these are the folks who spend the most time with your customers.
However, these discussions only form a foundation for your research, and they carry some inherent flaws.
Feedback from sales is often based on the last deal they lost, and that “one missing feature” becomes the most important issue – until they lose the next deal. Of course, it may not be a missing feature. Almost every salesperson I’ve ever worked with thinks they have a pricing problem.
On the other hand, customer service conversations are almost always focused on product problems. While your customers are clamoring for new features, customer service wants to make the product “bulletproof.” Feedback from customer service is essential, but it should be treated as one data point. Unless you have critical customer satisfaction issues, it should share roughly equal weight with feedback from other roles, despite what customer service may tell you.
Since consulting is measured on billable hours, most companies don’t involve them in direct customer negotiations. They may be asked to give an estimate of their time, but then they lose sight of the project until it shows up on their schedule. Needless to say, they don’t spend a lot of time thinking of ways the product could be improved if it can impact their hours.
#2 Site visits
There is nothing like getting out to a customer’s site. Sometimes it’s to study the way they use your product, but at other times, it’s helpful to put the product aside and study how they do business. Marketing can and should participate in ride-alongs with sales, but you can also gain unique insights by leaving the salesperson at home.
#3 Focus Groups
These are helpful if you want to study a particular aspect of an issue. You might gather a group of customers (or even non-customers) to better understand industry trends, daily challenges, their biggest concerns, or their plans for the future.
A few quick tips on conducting focus groups:
- If your market isn’t local, a great time to conduct a focus group is at an event or tradeshow.
- Be prepared to offer an incentive such as a $50 or $100 gift card to an establishment like Amazon or Best Buy.
- For a good discussion that involves everyone, 10 - 12 participants is optimal.
- Make sure you get enough people signed up so that you cover the attrition. Like all events, only 75-80 percent will show up, even with the incentive.
- As tempting as it is to capture comments, you’ll get better responses if you do not record the discussions. Hiring a court reporter is an excellent option as they can capture the discussion without recording client names.
With tools like Survey Monkey, online surveys are incredibly easy to do. If you have several departments who share customer contacts, you need to be careful about over-surveying customers, but other than that potential pitfall, I don’t understand why any company wouldn’t do them on a regular basis.
Surveys also make a great follow up to a focus group when you want quantitative data to go with your qualitative responses. In addition, the focus group will give you the foundation you need to ask better survey questions.
Quick survey tips:
- An incentive such as a $5 - 10 Amazon gift card helps overcome survey fatigue. It can be higher, but thanks to ebooks, $5 Amazon cards are much more acceptable these days.
- Have several people test your survey. This will help you uncover common pitfalls such as missing answer options or poorly worded questions. It’s even better if you have a customer or two review the survey.
#5 Win/Loss reviews
Remember when I mentioned that sales almost always thinks they have a pricing issue? Win/loss reviews can help you prove or disprove that claim.
Quick win/loss review tips:
- Choose both losses and wins. You'd be surprised how often sales doesn't have a clear idea of why they won certain opportunities.
- Pick recent sales. Anything older than two or three months and your contacts may not remember why they they made certain decisions.
- Sales can sometimes be helpful in providing contacts, but for obvious reasons, they should not be the ones making the calls.
- Some companies have management make the calls, but I find that customers are often intimidated by calls from management. Even if the rapport with the salesperson was not good, they may be reluctant to provide honest feedback if they think they are getting them into hot water.
- I've often found that product managers make the best internal resource for making these calls. If you’re not confident that your PMs can gather the info or that they have time for the project, invest in an outside resource.
- Try to get multiple contacts per customer, but don’t interview them together. In complex B2B sales, there is usually more than one buyer and usually more than one opinion on why the purchase decision ended up the way it did.
Obviously, site visits and talking to sales are something that need to be done “in-house” but focus groups, surveys, and win/loss reviews usually benefit from some outside involvement. If you’d like to discuss how you can make these happen, reach out to me here.
For those of you who already have programs in place, what’s working for you? Any lessons earned over the years that can help others who are just getting started?