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5 ways to do customer research (that aren't a survey)

Need to know what your customers think? Here's 5 ways for you to do customer research (that don't takes hours or include a bland survey).

Stuck on a problem, with your product or feature? You need to talk to your customers. Need to make a decision? You should talk to your customers. Want to know what to do next? You guessed to your customers! It's obvious, but not always easy, and the process can take a lot of time.

The usual solution is to send out a survey– and that can be done in a pinch– but there are other ways to do customer research that will bring you richer responses. Tapping into available technology means they shouldn’t take up too much more of your time or budget, either. 

This post will break down five different ways to do customer research to tackle whatever it is your team is currently facing. Aside from surveys, you can: 

  1. Conduct customer interviews 
  2. Delve into your support tickets 
  3. Listen to recorded calls 
  4. Tap into your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) 
  5. Talk to your customer-facing teams

Think of the last one like an internal focus group with the teams who know your customers best.

Understanding customer research

If you're intimately familiar with the different customer research methods and what they can do for your business decisions, then you can skip this section and go straight to conducting customer research. If you're here asking "What is customer research?" then this section will dive into a quick overview before we get into the five options beyond surveys.

Types of customer research

In our Ultimate Guide to Go-to-Market, we discussed the difference between quantitative research and qualitative research methods. Quantitative is numbers-based and measurable. It's best for working to validate any existing hypothesis your team might have by identifying specific answers to established questions. A data point like "How many potential customers are converting?" would be easy to measure (you could pull it from your CRM) and would validate the idea that more prospects were becoming customers.

Qualitative, on the other hand, is more open-ended and includes things like customer interviews, focus groups, and anything that can't be reduced to a simple number. This type of research is best for a "generative" approach when you have open-ended questions that can be answered to develop a hypothesis. Listening to recorded calls from potential customers would allow you to pull out themes around why they are or aren't converting into customers.

Both are important for conducting customer research and can tell you what action you need to take next. For example, knowing the number of customer support tickets you have coming in (quantitative data) around a specific issue tells you how widespread it is. The content of each of those specific tickets (qualitative data) tells you the breadth and depth of the issue and whether or not everyone is experiencing it in the same way. Just knowing something is a problem isn't the same as knowing how best to tackle it.

Primary and secondary research

All of the research methods we're covering here are primary research sources; you're going directly to the source or tapping into data the customer-facing teams pulled from the source. Secondary research can be used to contextualize and benchmark your primary research. Anything you're able to pull in from your team's general market research around customer behavior industry-wide can tell you if your customers are behaving differently in any way.

Those are valuable insights to have into your target market that help you tailor your messaging and positioning going forward. It's important to know your customers but it's even more important to know them in the context of the wider industry. That can help you stay ahead of market trends and reach more potential customers who fit your current customers' specific profile.

1. Conduct customer research interviews

Most teams turn to surveys because they’re a lower lift on both ends when everyone is busy and constantly engaged in to-do list triage. Unfortunately, there’s no substitute for talking to customers directly. The value exceeds the hurdles of scheduling (and rescheduling) customer research calls. 

Don’t be above incentives either; offer to buy them a coffee or send them a gift card for lunch delivery, if that’s what it takes to get them on the line. If time zones are an issue, offer to meet during whatever time is best for them (and buy yourself that coffee). Get creative and consider async call solutions if nothing else will work. Send a recorded video with your questions and get one in return. 

If you’re not sure how to go about outreach, aim for an approach that’s persistent but not annoying. Follow up multiple times, but leave enough time between follow-ups that customers won’t immediately delete any emails they see in their inbox from you. General sales wisdom dictates that you have to follow up five or six times before a deal gets reached, so keep that same cadence in mind here. 

The goal is to see how customers think and approach the problem you’re focused on. What is most important to them? Crucially, they may think they need one thing to solve a problem while your experience tells you that it’s something else. Dig deeper into what they are saying to understand what it is they are actually trying to do, vs what they say they are trying to do or what you think they are trying to do. 

2. Delve into your support tickets

Support tickets are a wealth of knowledge. They’re the place where the largest volume of issues and complaints come through– and sometimes these can be difficult to hear when you’ve been working hard to build a product or feature. 

Issues and bugs should always be confronted and addressed head-on, but the task can seem overwhelming if you have thousands of support tickets. At Ignition, we just had a customer upload 10,000 support tickets from just the last week. How can anyone possibly sift through that much noise to find the signal of what needs fixing?! 

Luckily technology is keeping pace with this problem. Ignition connects to Intercom or Zendesk to help discover what the most pressing issues are to resolve, at scale with the help of AI. We help you understand customer sentiment, product strengths and weaknesses, feature gaps, and more. 

Once you have your information, what should you do with it? To make an action plan, start by identifying themes in the issues and complaints customers are making. Then establish a plan that addresses issues in order of severity and volume, depending on the resources you have available. 

Your team should prioritize fixes weighing how widespread an issue is vs. how much it’s impacting customer access and workflows. For example, if nobody can log in, that’s obviously the first issue your team will want to tackle; it’s widespread and impacting all access. 

3. Listen to recorded calls

Listening to full recorded calls would take hours that you don’t have, but conversational intelligence tools have exploded. Your sales and CS teams likely tap into these to record their customer calls– if they aren’t, you should allocate budget for them ASAP. 

Much like with support tickets, the scale can be intimidating but technology is here to help. Ignition connects to Gong to do this work at scale with the assistance of our robot friends (AI). 

Some of these calls are with prospects, too, which means you get information about your target customers. What are they saying they want? Do you provide it but your sales team isn’t articulating this in a way they understand? That could be a reason prospects aren’t converting! 

You can also see how prospects respond to demos and if those could be structured differently to drive better results. Identify themes to see why prospects aren’t buying– or why existing customers aren’t renewing or upgrading– and make an action plan to address these issues. 

4. Tap into your CRM

It seems that somewhere along the way, we forgot that CRM stands for “customer relationship management” and isn’t just an acronym for our customer rolodex. Your customer-facing teams who build and manage these relationships are most likely leaving notes here. That’s a wealth of data that’s tied to revenue opportunity! 

Tapping into these notes means you can see why a particular deal hasn’t closed. That gives you the information you need to prioritize roadmap features and products based on customer feedback– giving your team the ability to take direct action that results in revenue impact. You built the missing feature the $50k prospect wanted and now the deal has closed. 

Highlighting this direct impact on revenue can help show the customer-facing teams why the notes they leave in your CRM are so important. Giving every team ownership over and stakes in the process helps drive commitment to it, especially when clear results are highlighted.

More good news on the technology front, too: Ignition connects to Hubspot and Salesforce to automatically read these customer notes with AI and auto-identify features that are being discussed and requested. This is a function that’s unique to Ignition and can give you an edge in a competitive market. 

5. Talk to your customer-facing teams

Usually, this is sales and customer support, but don’t rule out talking to any other customer-facing person your organization has in play. Think of roles like the social media manager, who spends a lot of time fielding questions out in the wild that may or may not make it into a support ticket.

Any of these team members will be happy to discuss what customers tell them about where and why the product could be better. Practice active listening, instead of trying to jump to solve the problem immediately (difficult, we know!). Ask why and then ask why again, always digging deeper to get to the root cause of customer frustrations. 

Successful teams build a consistent– but not overwhelming– feedback loop between customer-facing teams and the product team. Establishing a single source of truth for everyone to work from benefits the entire loop, so sales and CS don’t overpromise on the roadmap or misunderstand exactly what a product or feature does. 

The underlying key is always working to understand what problems the customer is trying to solve, which isn’t always what they say they are trying to solve. Help the customer teams help the customers by digging into the customer research and translating it for the benefit of all. 

Survey says 

Once you have all of this data, don’t keep it siloed. Be sure you’re looking for overarching themes that emerge from each of these sources and using that to prioritize the work you do addressing customer needs. 

While customer research can seem daunting– so it’s tempting to just send out a survey and be done with it– the rich data that comes from these sources enables everyone to save resources by building and fixing the right things. 

Let technology help make that achievable. (Including Ignition, if you’re interested!)

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