As I go listen to so called guru’s in marketing and selling the realisation that it is not rocket science, but common sense.
However a few good ideas do cross the desk and I intend to distribute these to my client list in the meantime I will copy them here so they are easily accessible under the tag small business briefing.
This one is on PR and customer feedback.
1. PR and Customer Research
Business is about selling. Everything else, including the whole process of production, management, and even marketing, is basically sales support. It all comes down to persuading a customer to give you money – and to go on doing so. So it is astonishing how little most businesses actually know about their customers and how little trouble they take to relate to them.
Your customers define your business, and not just because without them you are nothing. Their needs form your bedrock and their desires shape your future. The key to a solid business is to make them feel closer to your business. This involves finding out what they feel and want.
This essay covers two separate but inter-related areas:
- Customer relations, which is about keeping existing customers happy.
- Customer research, which is about getting feedback from them.
Define your objectives
Before you start contacting customers or asking them any intrusive questions, you must be careful to define your objectives clearly.
Customer relations has several objectives, more or less in the following order of priority:
- To make the customer feel valued.
- To provide indications of emerging needs or trends for use in future product development.
Customer relations is a continuous ongoing process whose principal tool is communication.
Customer research tends to be based more on discrete projects, each of which may have one or more of several different objectives:
- To measure how good your customer service is and where you could improve.
- To identify problems or possible improvements with an existing product/service.
- To test changes to an established product/service.
- To provide indications of future needs or trends for use in product/service development (note that this is also the third objective of customer relations).
- To assess potential demand for a planned new product/service.
- To test a new product/service.
- To identify potential problems in advance
Note that customer research, unlike customer relations, usually embraces potential as well as existing customers.
Do not expect your customers to come up with all your ideas for you. They are most likely to respond if you present them with a range of options. Having said that, if they do come up with ideas on their own, look at them seriously. If a lot of people bring up the same issue without prompting, there could be a major problem or unmet need out there.
To understand your customers, you need to talk to them whenever you have the opportunity, whether they are direct clients, consumers or intermediate resellers. More importantly, encourage them to talk back. At every contact, try to get them to open up a bit. Be friendly, but not intrusive or long-winded.
Ask if they have any problems or suggestions –
- 95% of the time the questions will seem a routine formality, but the other 5% is the bit that matters.
- If they are vague, pin them down. Try asking, ‘If you could change one thing about our product or service, what would it be?’
- Be specific. Ask, ‘We were thinking of doing x – what do you think of that?’
- Ask new customers why they came to you, and, as tactfully as possible, why they left their previous supplier.
- Accept that customers will look at or try other suppliers. Encourage them to come back to you for a final talk before finalising any change of supplier, if only to say why they are going.
- What was it that made them buy at that point?
- How can you apply this information to prospective customers?
Be open to criticism, so do not try too hard to defend yourself: this is not a debate to be won, but an opportunity for you to learn and to show you are willing to learn.
The first indication many businesses have that a customer has a problem with them, is when they realise that they have become an ex-customer. The challenge businesses face is the British dislike of complaining. People would rather avoid any embarrassment by dropping you without a word.
The solution is proactively to ask customers if they are happy with their purchases and whether they have discovered any glitches. This may involve after-sales support, such as a follow-up phone call, which is actually customer research in the guise of customer relations.
Customers can tell you about:
- What is right or wrong with your products/services.
- How they use them. This may highlight new uses or suggest refinements that you can pass on to other customers.
- How they perceive the benefits now that they have experienced them, which will help you channel your marketing and sales efforts more precisely.
- What they would change/improve if they could.
- Problems they are having. For example, if you question them, you may find that they consider the new software package they bought from you, say, is more of a hindrance than a help. If this is the case, you might be about to have an ex-customer on your hands unless you can reverse the situation. The solution may be as simple as recommending a good training course.
- What they like least about dealing with your business.
- What they like most about your products.
- Themselves and their wider needs and wants.
In many cases, you may be able to address these through another part of your organisation or by recommending a colleague or associate business.
Of course, what you will hear from customers is not comprehensive, systematic, measurable, or even reliable – for one thing, people tend to say what they think you want to hear. It is, however, the most important source of information your business has.
Don’t rely on memory. Keep a customer contact book and take notes of each comment they make. Better still, use a customer database on your computer so everyone can share the information.
Hold regular meetings with your staff, at which one of the items should be a report on what they are hearing from customers either in work or socially. Much of this is little more than gossip, but if the same things keep coming up, take notice. Act on what you hear. In particular, be prepared to feed it into product development.
You may also hear things that cause you to alter your actual marketing strategy. Do not be too proud to change.
Customer research is just one discipline within market research. It aims to provide both hard factual data and less tangible feedback or feelings:
- Who bought what, when?
- Are any trends or patterns apparent?
- What are your common cross-sells and up-sells? Could this be systematised so that when a customer buys X they automatically get a follow-up call to see if they might also find Y useful as well?
- What is the average size of order?
- Where are your customers based?
- What sort of business are they?
Such data tells you little on its own. It is how you interpret it and the building picture that matter. Check how much other information you can find out in-house.
For example, the knowledge that most of your customers employ less than five people may appear irrelevant at first glance. However, knowing this, you will begin to understand the mindset of the owner can’t afford to have people away from their desks for an extensive three-day training course. So you might change the way you deliver courses to make them telephone-based.
Other data can help you target your marketing more precisely. For example, asking new customers how they first heard of you – an advert, article in a magazine or word-of-mouth – will help you track the effectiveness of your marketing efforts. And analysis later will show which media to target in your next campaign.
Types of customer research
There are two basic types of customer research:
- Qualitative. Usually based on in-depth discussions with customers, either individually or in groups.
- Quantitative. Usually done using standard questionnaires that allow the results to be easily analysed.
The former is of greater use in gauging what people actually think, but depends on good analysis. The latter gives an air of certainty, albeit often artificial, which can be useful in convincing others.
Can you do it yourself?
Like most business disciplines, market research can benefit from specialist skills and experience. Hence, some people maintain that market research is best done by experts. Knowing how to design effective questionnaires, how to get the right sample, how to contact people and get a good response rate, and how to interview in depth or work with a focus group are all specific skills that most business owners and managers do not have.
Most market research firms have their own way of doing things. This is often a closely guarded secret. It is also difficult to find out which firm’s approach is right for you. Moreover, as with any form of consultancy, it can be hard to tell the professionals from the charlatans.
Research firms are often expensive and while their services may well be worth the money, they are usually out of reach of most small
businesses. Hence you may be forced to do your own market research instead. This is not as difficult as research firms would make out. A great deal depends upon common sense. You can gain enormous benefits from even simple techniques and projects. The key is always to be alive to the need and opportunities to gather information from all sources.
Firstly, you can find out a good deal of very useful information from basic desk research. Before you even get down to talking to customers, for example, your database and management accounts should be examined for information.
Questionnaires are the main tools of customer research. They can also be used as a supplement to customer relations, but should never take the place of talk. They may be sent or given to the customer, or filled in by an interviewer. They can be delivered by a variety of methods, such as direct mail or email.
A good questionnaire is:
- short: this is more likely to get a response
- to the point: collect only what you need to know, not what might be ‘nice to know’
- easy to read – clearly printed, open, and nicely set out on the page
- easy to fill in and navigate, with a few, easy instructions, and plenty of space for those with large handwriting
- unambiguous: avoid terms like ‘usually’ and ‘frequently’
- jargon-free: if you must use a technical term, define it
- unbiased: leading questions defeat the object.
Above all, questionnaires should be designed with their ultimate use in mind – analysis.
If your research is quantitative, use tick boxes or points systems (4 = excellent, 1 = poor, and so on). These can be analysed using spreadsheets on a computer.
If it is qualitative, leave lots of space for personal comments. Do not restrict replies to your own categories so include a category of ‘Others (please specify)’.
Target your mailshot carefully. You may decide to mail just existing customers, or you could include dormant or ex-customers. You will then have to decide whether you want to mail all of your customers, a random selection or a specific group – individual buyers, say, or retailers.
A word of warning: people who take the time and trouble to fill in and return a questionnaire are a minority – and therefore not necessarily typical of the majority.
Testing your questionnaire
Prepare a ‘dummy’ questionnaire and send it to a few colleagues to fill in. Listen to what they think of it. Clear up any ambiguities – you may know what you want to know, but others do not. Check that your questions ask for the answers in the form you want. Put ‘male or female’ rather than ‘sex’, for instance.
You can use these responses as test data for a ‘dummy’ analysis, using a spreadsheet if your research is quantitative.
Once you have decided what you want to ask, you must put your questions in front of the people you want to ask.
Mailed questionnaires do not usually get a good response unless a large number of people happen to feel strongly about a given issue. If you receive such a response, you would do well to take notice.
You can increase responses by offering an incentive, or a prize draw, and by enclosing a pre-paid or freepost envelope. You might also consider making responses anonymous to get more honest answers.
Email surveys may get you a better response than a letter, but bear in mind that:
- An email survey could be seen as suspiciously like spam.
- Unless you have been diligent about collecting every customer’s email address, you could end up with an unrepresentative group.
Telephone surveys are much more laborious and expensive but can provide much richer feedback. The key to telephone canvassing is to have a good script and to stick to it. However, telemarketing is increasingly seen as intrusive too, and those who reply will, once again, not be typical of the majority of people, who will want you off the telephone as quickly as possible.
Face-to-face interviews can take many forms. At one end of the spectrum a researcher with a clipboard approaches customers as they leave your shop, say, and runs through a closely defined script with prompts. At the other end is the in-depth interview in which a highly trained interviewer encourages the customer to speak at length for half an hour or more. Unlike the in-shop situation, this process is designed so that the questioner will say relatively little. There is a range of variations between these extremes. Bear these general points in mind:
- It is not usually cost-effective to interview every customer. On the other hand, it is difficult to get a really random sample when selecting people, say, as they leave your shop. Saturday shoppers are quite different to lunch-hour shoppers.
- Those willing to take part in such exercises are not typical: many people simply do not have the time.
- People are suddenly invited to talk in detail about things which they have probably not spent much time thinking about before.
Focus groups are managed group discussions. A typical exercise will involve groups of six to eight people who represent a cross-section of customers – current or potential. The ideal focus group will have the air of a brainstorming session. A trained moderator will draw out the shy, check the dominant, and introduce new information and key questions at appropriate points. For many such reasons, focus groups may best be conducted by experienced professionals.
The criticisms that apply to face-to-face interviews apply doubly to focus groups. What sort of people would want to take part in such a discussion? Can the result be anything but artificial? On top of this, there is the distortion of the social dimension. Some people will want to impress the members of the group, or not offend them, or defeat them in argument, or dominate, or do any one of a thousand other illogical things people do when they interact in groups. They will not be thinking and acting as they do when deciding whether or not to buy your product. Nevertheless, many organisations find such research extremely useful.
All this research is pointless unless it is analysed – and used. Everything should be designed with that analysis in mind. So establish in advance:
- the sort of analysis you require – qualitative or quantitative.
- the kind of information you require and in what format.
- who the survey will be sent to.
- the purpose for which the results will be used.
If it is to be worth the effort, the results should impact on every aspect of business planning and strategy. Not least will be the lessons such exercises teach you about the direction of your future marketing.
Developing a relationship with existing customers can itself be an adjunct, possibly an alternative, to formal market research.
- Observation is a great tool of market research: visit your customers and see how they use your products and services in practice.
- Use existing customers for advance product testing – they will enjoy the novelty and will appreciate being asked.
- Use loyalty groups, cardholders, club members and the like as the basis for feedback and market research; these are
- people with a proven and active interest in your product
- Above all, establish a two-way relationship. This means:
You must listen as well as talk.
The benefits go both ways.
- As well as being an excellent resource for market research, customers will appreciate the fact that their opinions are seen to be valued