Customer Research Best practices

A guide to customer research

July 29, 2022
7 min
A guide to customer research

Customer research is a term that can mean a lot of different things depending on your perspective. We believe customer research is the foundation of a successful organization, especially a product-led organization. The basic premise of customer research is that teams conduct research with their customer base to understand their perspective, pains, successes, and requests. It is through that understanding of customer needs that organizations thrive.


Building a customer research program makes your customers feel heard and valued, leading to long-term partnerships (read: larger CLV). It leads to faster development cycles (nothing says fix me fast like a painful customer interview shared across teams) and more aligned priorities (if most customers have requested this feature, it’s easy to prioritize). Better messaging leads to increased revenue (using words that customers use and describing how you can fix their problem makes it easier to purchase). Those are just a few ways that customer research helps organizations succeed.


In this article, we outline exactly what customer research is, why it's important, who should do it, how it should be done and how to select the right research tools to make it easy. Let’s begin.

What is customer research?

Customer research is the ongoing process of identifying customer needs, preferences, and motivations. Customer research can be used at every stage of the customer lifecycle, from awareness to selection and through customer advocacy. It can help determine what motivates your current or potential customers to buy from you. After customers have purchased from you, you can collect insights by reading customer reviews, and conducting continuous customer research via customer interviews. . Think of customer research as a way to collect insights from your customers throughout the customer lifecycle.

Customer research can take place in the form of focus groups, surveys, or even 1:1 customer calls. For instance, you can decide to set up monthly check-in calls with your SaaS customers and get their feedback on your products and services.

Armed with these insights, you can find ways to improve your product offerings, expand your customer base and remodel your marketing strategy. You may find out that your product messaging is wrong and you need to make adjustments to your marketing segments.

With well-thought-out customer research, here are 3 key questions that you can answer:

  • Who are my ideal customers? Which customers will validate my startup achieving product market fit?
  • What channels should I use to find and communicate with my customers?
  • What price point are customers willing to pay for my product?

Customer research is not consumer research

There tends to be a misconception that customer research and consumer research are the same things. They’re quite different and shouldn’t be confused. To understand the difference between the two types of research, let’s take a closer look at the difference between a customer and a consumer. A customer is a person or company that buys the product or service. A consumer is a person or company that uses the product or service.

For instance, Microsoft sells Office 365 packages to enterprises and educational bodies that will be used by employees and students. The enterprises and educational bodies are the customers but the employees and students are the consumers.

So while the employees and students are the end-users of the product, they’re not the target customers. The enterprise and educational bodies are. Your marketing efforts need to be directed to the customers and to do that, you need to carry out customer research. 

Why is customer research important?

When done correctly, customer research gives you meaningful insights that can lead you to make better business decisions. With well-crafted, thorough research, you’ll be able to understand what your customers really want. You can then iterate your products and services to make sure you’re meeting your customer’s needs. Customer research can help you:

Improve customer experience

When you sit down and talk to your customers, you’ll be able to find out their pain points and (hopefully) fix these pain points. This can lead to a better customer experience. 86% of buyers are willing to spend more money for a great customer experience. Happy customers mean more revenue for your business. Also, focusing on creating a great customer experience can lead to lower customer churn.

Increase customer satisfaction

Researching customers and talking with your customers allows you to identify specific issues relating to your customers, which you can then fix. This will make your customers feel valued and heard and increase customer satisfaction. Irrespective of how amazing your product is if customers aren’t happy they’re not going to stick around for long. It’s important to keep taking the temperature of your existing customers as you can increase customer retention and lower customer acquisition costs (CAC). It’s important to keep taking the temperature of your existing customers.

Build better products

You can’t build products without doing research, your product needs to be aligned with what your customers want. The first thing you should do is conduct customer research to build products that meet the expectations of your customers and then continue carrying out customer research to iterate and build better products. By conducting customer surveys, you can get an idea of the kind of features your customers are hoping for. You can put these feature requests on your product roadmap with the hope to implement this or you might find that there’s a demand for a new product that doesn’t already exist.

Who should do customer research?

Everyone should do customer research. In addition to support and customer success teams who speak to customers as part of their day-to-day jobs, UX researchers, designers, product managers and marketers should all be speaking with customers regularly, with a focus on research topics.

UX researchers 

It goes without saying that UX researchers already do a type of research— user experience research. But UX researchers should also carry out customer research. UX research looks at people’s behavior and interaction with a product or service whereas customer research looks at people’s attitudes and reactions to the product or service. 

A combination of UX research and customer research will lead to great product development. If customers are leaving or aren’t using the product, a UX researcher can figure out why via customer research and highlight opportunities to fix the product through UX research. 

At the recent UXR Conference in 2022, we heard from Claudia Natasia from Highspot who stated: “On average the first UX research is brought on when the company has 800 employees”. Not everyone has a UX researcher, but if you are lucky enough to have one, encourage your UX researcher to carry out customer research.

Product managers 

Product managers should carry out research to make sure that the product vision is aligned with the customer’s expectations and objectives. Sometimes, product managers rely on confirmation bias to justify product plans. Research removes that bias by giving product managers customer data sets that can be used for product improvement.

Oftentimes, product managers receive product feedback heard from sales development representatives (SDRs) and Customer Success Managers (CSMs) and not the customers themselves. This leads to a few problems:

  1. Potential miscommunication in feedback communicated. The best way to receive feedback is for the feedback to be communicated by customers directly. This reduces the chance of miscommunication.
  2. You only hear from the most vocal customers. Some customers might not express their product frustrations yet you are only hearing from the ones that do. So if you introduce product changes based on the feedback, you’re only meeting a small number of customers’ needs. There’s a whole subsection of customers who aren’t being considered.
  3. Recency bias affects product development. Sales and customer success teams may only remember to communicate the most recent feedback they’ve heard which could lead product managers to release features only targeted at a specific subset of customers.

Research ensures product managers can keep the product development focused on the customer.

Product designers 

Customer design research is integral to successful product development. You know how the saying goes—great product design keeps the end user in mind. One of the most important aspects of product design is creating a product your customer will love. How do you find out if your customer loves your product? Research.

Prototype testing is a great way to research how customers feel about your designs. You can get real-time feedback before your product goes to market so you know how the product will perform. You can also research your customer’s usability of your product throughout the whole product development cycle with usability testing.

Marketers

Marketers need to carry out customer research because marketers are often in close contact with customers (directly or indirectly) and as a marketer, you must know how to reach customers. To know how to reach your customers, you need to research your customers. 

Typically, marketers carry out market research, but as a marketer, you should also carry out customer research. Both types of research are influenced by each other, market research helps marketers identify the economic trends in the market and whether there’s an economic ability for the target market to pay for the product. 

Customer research helps marketers understand what customers are looking for and which marketing strategies to employ. You can do a brand awareness survey to find out whether your brand is resonating with your target audience and if it isn’t, you can adapt your strategy.

 Customer research can also help you get ahead of your competitors. If you’re conducting research specific to the audience you’re trying to reach and iterate your products based on the feedback, you’re already one step ahead. Plus, you can also carry out competitor benchmark surveys with competitive evaluation reviews to know exactly what your customers think about your competitors. 

Types of customer research

The main types of research fall into four categories: primary, secondary, qualitative and quantitative. But these categories aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s helpful to view these types of research along a 2-dimensional framework with the following axes:

  • Primary and secondary on the Y axis 
  • Qualitative and quantitative on the X axis.

As you can see, primary research can be qualitative or quantitative and secondary research can be qualitative or quantitative.

Primary research vs Secondary Research

Primary research is research that is collected directly by you. For example, if you went into the street with a pen and clipboard in hand and asked people what their favorite clothing brand is. That’s primary research.

However, these days most research takes place online, like online surveys rather than stopping customers on the street. Secondary research is research that isn’t collected directly by you.

For example, sifting through online customer reviews or forums to find out how customers feel about a product or service. YELP or Google Reviews are a great example of secondary research. Businesses can view how customers feel about different brands and services.

Quantitative research vs qualitative research

Quantitative research is all about numbers. It’s the process of collecting and analyzing numerical data. Collecting and analyzing numerical data like average order value (AOV) is an example of quantitive research. Quantitative data is often objective and can be quicker to analyze and present your findings, especially with visual dashboards.

Qualitative research is all about words. It’s the process of collecting and analyzing non-numerical data. Asking customers open-ended questions like “what would you describe the onboarding process like?” is an example of qualitative research. Qualitative data tends to come from smaller sample sizes, like focus groups and in-depth interviews.

Customer research methods 

Now that you know all about the benefits of research, how do you go about gathering your research? Here are a few methods to research your customers.

Surveys: Surveys are used to gather customer responses to specific questions. For example, a net promoter score (NPS) survey measures customer experience. NPS surveys typically ask respondents if they would recommend your services or product to a friend or colleague.

Customer interviews: Customer interviews are a form of qualitative research that take place between businesses and past, present or future customers about their challenges, goals or feedback on your product. The goal is to use the feedback to iterate on products and services. Customer exit interviews explore why a customer stopped using your product or service.

Prototype testing: Prototype testing involves sharing an early stage prototype or wireframe with your target audience on a device they would use. The purpose is to assess the viability of your product concept. An effective way to do prototype testing is as a video-based study. You can watch your participants use the product live and pair the video recording with product tracking. Watch this webinar to learn more about video-based prototype testing.

Usability testing: Usability testing is used to uncover any potential issues with the product design. There are two types, unmoderated and moderated usability testing. Usability testing involves the participant using the product or service in real-time. For example, a fintech app might ask a group of participants to use the app to see how the payment functions are working.

How to conduct customer research

Now it’s time to learn how to conduct your research. Here are the four steps you need to follow:

Identify what you want to research 

The first step is identifying what you want to research. When you know what you want to research, you’ll know which methods and which types of research you’re going to need. Let’s say you’re a Product Manager at a Health and Wellness brand and you want to launch a new feature. You want to research how your existing customers would feel about this feature addition. 

Once you’ve identified what you want to research, you can go ahead and choose your research method.

Choose your research method 

Choosing your research method is largely dependent on what type of research you’re doing. So in this case, you want to find out how existing users feel about a potential new feature. This means that you’re looking for primary qualitative research. You’re looking for customers to express themselves with words. However, you still need to choose the exact method. 

A survey might not be the best method to use because you’re not exactly looking for answers to a specific set of questions but more of a conversation. A validation interview is a great way to have a conversation with your customers about their thoughts on a potential feature release.

So you know you want to collect primary qualitative research, and you know you want to conduct a validation interview. Now you need to pinpoint how you’re going to do this. We’ve long passed the days of face-to-face interviews, so chances are, it’s going to be virtual. You’re also targeting existing customers. 

Now you’ve got your research method ready, let’s get your research tools ready.

Get your customer research tools ready

You’ve probably heard the famous expression “one is as good as their tools”, well the same applies to research. Your research can only be as good as your tools. You need the right tools to kickstart your research. There are a lot of bases to cover. You need to:

Build a panel: You’re looking for existing customers. So you probably need to dig into your CRM tool and pull up a list of existing customers. 

Start participant outreach: Once you’ve got your list of existing customers, you need to reach out to see who is interested in participating in your research. 

 Schedule interviews: Once you’ve managed to find participants to agree to take part in your research, you need to go ahead and schedule interviews. Sending out individual emails, and messaging back and forth for availability is very time-consuming. Then you need to make sure you’ve added the interviews to your calendar.

Host your interviews: Zoom or Google Meet? You need to choose where you want your interviews to take place.

Take interview notes: As the interview is going on, you’ll want to take notes. You can do it the old-fashioned way, by hand or you can use a note-taking app like Notion.

Offer incentives: You’ll want to send a small token to your participants for their time. This could either be product discounts, a cash gift card or even a charitable donation.

As you can see, there are a lot of tools you need for customer research. The good thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way. You can have one customer research tool that keeps all your research operations in one place. 

Make use of Great Question for your customer research. The all-in-one research platform. You don’t have to worry about a lot of tabs open and clicking between different applications. You can build a panel, set your eligibility parameters for your research (targeting a certain demographic) and do your participant outreach with custom landing pages and emails. Speed up your research process by taking advantage of research templates.

If you want to schedule your interviews, you can use the calendar built for researchers. You can schedule group interviews or individual interviews. Interview scheduling comes with Zoom or Google Meet integrated, you choose which one you prefer. 

You can also offer incentives immediately after the interviews, all from the platform. So you don’t have to worry about chasing vendors or putting gift card requests to the Finance team.

Synthesize your data

Once you’ve conducted the studies and have a bunch of content, synthesizing takes the most time. You need to include the context and insights about the customers and organize findings into themes or topics. Using spreadsheets can get confusing. You want your research to be stored in one place, like a repository. You can review transcripts or survey results. Ideally, you should review customer feedback and start a list of themes or topics that help structure the feedback.


Once you have the themes, include specific examples of the topics from customer responses. Having real-world examples from customers can help build compelling insights for your stakeholders. 

Share your insights

Keeping good research in a silo should be a crime. There’s nothing worse than an insight being stuck in a repository with no one to hear or read it. As you build themes and include data from customers that back up a theme, include links to docs or slides that include these topics. Use this time to form an opinion on the findings and share it to get their feedback.

Sharing can happen asynchronously or synchronously. Just make sure you leave room for feedback or questions. This dialogue is an important part of determining action items and the subsequent impact of customer research. 

Customer research is a continuous journey

Customer research doesn’t stop after the first interview, it’s a continuous process that you should do frequently. Especially if you’re after product-led growth. You’ll want to keep hearing from your customers and improving on your products. One of the best ways to ensure that is to have a customer research platform that will enable you to do so. If you’re ready to get started with your customer journey research, speak to one of us today.

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