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Customer research 101: What it is and how to get started

When you are starting a business, one of the biggest questions will be around who your customers are and how your product solves their problems. Even if you have a great idea, startups can’t succeed without a valid understanding of who to market to and what their pain points are. Customer research should be one of the first steps when concepting and developing your business–even for founders who are deeply engrained in the space they will be working in, conducting research can provide valuable feedback which can inform the direction of your business.

Customer research helps businesses understand who their potential customers are, what they care about, how they want to be marketed to, and much more. There is an assumption that research takes too much time or effort, but there are easy ways to get research done quickly. Even founders and startups with no research experience, a little time, and little to no budget can conduct some research. As you grow, you can scale your research operations with your customer base, so you never get out of touch with your core customer needs.

What is customer research?

Customer research allows businesses to better understand the needs and motivations of their customers (or potential customers) and can be conducted through a variety of methods, including in-depth interviews, surveys, observations, and focus groups. Customer research is a broad category, and startups and businesses can tailor their research to ensure it’s answering the most important questions for their teams. For example, an early-stage startup may be most interested in learning if their product fits a need and who within a company would be their target customer. A more established company that has already developed a product and has customers may use research to find out how their product is being used or identify missing features.

Some key questions that customer research often answers include:

  • Who are my target customers?

  • What’s my product-market fit?

  • Is the end-user the same as the decision maker?

  • What are my customer’s pain points?

  • What products are they currently using?

  • What is missing from the products they are currently using?

  • How do my target customers like being marketed to?

  • What are the key benefits of my product?

  • What features would customers most like to see in my product?

  • How much are customers willing to pay for my product?

By asking these questions, customer research can inform not only marketing and sales efforts but can also help businesses prioritize product features, make pricing decisions, and more.

Easy customer research methods

Research can be split broadly into two categories: Qualitative and quantitative research. Qualitative research answers “why” or “how” questions, and produces data that cannot be easily measured, such as opinions or long-form thoughts on why a customer finds your product useful. Quantitative research answers “how many” questions, and produces measurable, directionable data, such as the percentage of survey respondents who answered ‘yes’ to a question. Generally, surveys and some types of observation are quantitative, while unstructured interviews gather more qualitative data.

While there are several other methods for conducting research that more advanced researchers may use, such as focus groups, below are some easy methods to get your research journey started.

Surveys

Surveys are an extremely useful tool as they can gather quantitative data, such as how often your customers interact with your product, or which future potential features are most important. Surveys can range from simple to very complex, but we recommend that businesses just starting in research create a simple survey with the most important questions to your business.

There are many free survey software tools available that produce survey links that can be sent out to your customers or prospects via email or social media. Alternatively, if you want to reach respondents outside of your own contacts, you can utilize sample providers who will charge a fee for each respondent who completes your survey. This option is more expensive but can provide insights from those not already familiar with your product.

Interviews

Interviews conducted in person, over the phone, or on a video call are another easy, low-cost way to conduct customer research. Interviews allow the researcher to interact directly with one customer or potential customer at a time, and they can be unstructured or semi-structured, which allows the conversation to flow based on the respondent’s answers rather than by following a set list of questions. Because interview answers are generally open-ended, respondents may bring up topics or responses that you wouldn’t have thought to ask about.

Interviews shouldbe conducted one at a time, and all they require is a customer to agree to speak with you. Interviews can also provide feedback that informs a larger quantitative survey–for example, if you find that customer support is brought up frequently in interviews, you can include multiple questions on support in a survey to a wider group.

Observational and product usage data

Observation may include watching how users interact with your product, what steps they take to complete an action, and where they go to look for an answer to a problem. For a tech startup, observation can be as simple as a video call with a customer who walks you through their regular actions in your product following a series of prompts.

In addition to one-off observations, web analytics, product usage or engagement data or clickmaps, which aggregate usage patterns of many customers, can also give you insight into how people navigate your website, use your product and what features they may use in different ways than you expected.

How to get started with customer research

Choosing a research method is only one factor in starting your customer research process. Other items you will want to consider include your research question–what is the core question you are trying to answer? Keeping research targeted and focused on one or two research questions ensures that those most critical questions are answered. You may have a hypothesis or idea about the answer to your research question, but try to avoid writing questions or designing experiments in a way that will only confirm your existing hypothesis.

The research question can also help inform the research method and target audience–for example, if you’re looking to assess product-market fit, interviews or a survey with potential or target customers would be helpful. If you are starting to develop your product or expand its features, the “Jobs to be Done” methodology can help assess why users would choose or “hire” your product over a competitor.

No matter where you start with customer research, having some directional data with which to develop your product and business plan is better than going off of anecdotal evidence or no information at all. Although having a dedicated researcher or research team usually comes when a company is at a later stage, sending out surveys or conducting regular interviews with customers can be relatively simple and cost-effective if you leverage free tools.

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