Bootstrapping customer research

Donovan Cronkhite
President, RJM

Posted On March 14, 2018

I don't like to turn lights on. Nothing against the power company, I like them just fine. But on the scale of needs and wants, light often falls closer to a want than a need. It's also, as I've been told, an unnatural habit.

When operating without light, you develop a sixth sense of where things are. Two steps, and a half step to the left prevents you from stubbing your toe on the end table. When you reach out and feel the tree on the way to the barn, be sure to stay close as there is a hole to your left. Walk through the doorway and four steps in is the light pull above your head.

Seems a little like being in business, doesn't it?

Our innate ability to know our businesses

Every person in business has that innate ability to find things in the dark. For certain, most of the time we can't predict the future. But we know exactly where that end table is. We've stubbed our toe on it before. And instead of just dropping a few choice words for the table, in business that means that we probably lost money somewhere along the line. We go through our day navigating those knowns.

And that serves us well. Until something pops up that we haven't seen before. At home, that's normally a Lego. At work, it tends to be a lot larger, though not necessarily less painful. Google changes an algorithm and your website falls to page four. Customer expectations shift and customers start to migrate to a competitor. A new technology comes out and not adapting to it makes you less price competitive.

Now suddenly you need some light. And the best flashlight tends to be your customers.

But...but...Steve Jobs!

There's this persistent belief that the king of innovation, Steve Jobs, never listened to a customer in his life. In fact, he said so. "People don't know what they want until you show them," he famously said. It's right up there with Henry Ford's, "If I asked people what they wanted, they would tell me a faster horse".

Except Henry Ford never said those words, and Steve Jobs did in fact listen to his customers.

Ford actually believed in his own genius, and for years froze the design of the Model T. Selling them in the thousands, and coming close to millions by the end of its run, it seemed like Ford could operate in the dark. He knew where every obstacle was on his way to refining the manufacturing process and competing effectively on price. Until the unknown came in the 1920s by GM and Alfred Sloan's consumer-driven "A car for every purpose" dropped Ford's dominance from 75% of the market down to nearly 15%.

Jobs, on the other hand, listened intently not to the exact words that the customer said, but to the experience that they craved. Apple products rarely ship with an effective user manual. The experience was to be designed to be intuitive, delivering a quick start and pleasurable interaction from the moment you open the box. And that – that takes listening to your customer intently.

How we listen to customers

Getting bogged down in too much feedback and data is an obstacle that is all too often present. Research piles up and takes days, or even weeks, to go through. At RjM, we have the staff present to dedicate to this that a small internal marketing department may not. It affords us some luxury to provide more intensive insights to you. How do we do it?

  • Talking directly to your customers at scale
    Talking to your customers isn’t something that you can’t do, but it is time intensive to do it at scale. Calling and interviewing twenty or thirty customers in the span of a couple of weeks takes dedicated time. Within the first 15 customers, trends start to emerge in both quantifiable and emotional feedback. We start to see the commonalities between your customers in both new opportunities and improvements on existing processes. Allowing them to be anonymous, and having a third party be the sounding board, often allows them to tell us things that they wouldn’t tell you.
  • Man on the street interviews
    While your current and past customers can tell us quite a bit, unless you have 100% market share, they don’t tell the whole story. To get this type of feedback, RjM would do Intercept Surveys, approaching potential customers to figure out why they aren’t currently your customers. These “man on the street” style intercept interviews give you another glimpse into the thoughts of the customer – one who may not be familiar with your brand.
  • Third party research
    The big book of information. Anyone can read it, but who actually does? We do. You don’t need (nor really care about) all of the backstory, you just need a condensed bullet point list of important points from everyone else’s lessons. We read the information you don’t care about, so you don’t have to.
  • Mass data collection
    Digital makes everything more far reaching. While we love the personal interaction of phone calls and in-person meetings as it allows us to explore related topics that the customer brings up, digital tools allow us to get feedback in mass without incurring tremendous cost. Social media, online surveys, email marketing and other tools allow us to develop another feedback profile.

While this isn’t the end of our toolbox for getting customer feedback, it should be evident that the strategies aren’t overly complicated. Our core belief is that nothing replaces actually talking with a customer, and the strategies reflect that. The strategies, however, are time intensive. And time isn’t always something that you have.

No time. No money. No problem.

If you find yourself in a position where time and money are both at a premium, this is not a reason to give up on listening to your customers. The light that they shine on our businesses is too valuable to budget for later. Instead, it’s time to bootstrap your customer feedback just the way you would when starting a new business.

  • Online reviews
    There’s a good chance, especially if you’re a B2C business, that customers are already giving you feedback. It may not be the feedback you want (be aware that this is a playground for the upset), but it is unsolicited and valuable insight. How often are you checking your company’s reviews on Google, Yelp, Facebook and – and this is the important part – responding to them? Many businesses aren’t, but should be. Online reviews are a free and quick feedback tool open to all business. In addition, generating additional reviews can help with growing website traffic and online presence.
  • Never eat alone
    You’ve probably heard of the business development strategy of never eating alone. Are you doing it with your customers? You have to eat. Hopefully, you’re taking the time to do so now. So make the time effective by treating a customer on a regular basis. But don’t just cover how their family is doing or the score from last night. Ask them how you’re doing. And how they’re doing. Discuss what is keeping them up at night. Make it meaningful and you’ll find great worth in the cost of a lunch.
  • Offer to get customer feedback for someone else
    There is a universal truth that you learn quickly in the advertising agency business. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working for a community bank, a manufacturer, or a tourist attraction, the business problems are generally the same. Ignoring the intricate details, businesses often struggle with the same fundamental issues. But everyone takes a slightly different approach to solving it. Seeing it from someone else’s view often opens doors that you hadn’t thought of. Trade journals and industry specific information explores solutions proven for others, just like you. But to stand out, exposing yourself to a solution that worked in another industry can spark a great new solution for you. By offering to get feedback for another company, not only will you build gratitude from your associates, but also expose your thinking to opportunities you may not have thought about. Again, all for the cost and time of a lunch.
  • Look to your analytics
    It’s not always about the customer’s words, but their actions. If you haven’t opened your Google Analytics or Facebook Analytics lately, now is the time to do so. Your customers may say that they really want a product, but are you getting traffic to that page? What content are they interacting with on your blog? The actions that they’re taking with your content tells their true intent and can help guide you to a better opportunity. And these days, everything comes with analytics. From social media to email, customers are leaving a digital trail of intent signals.

Why we believe in asking so many questions

It’s too easy to be lulled into thinking we have all of the answers. In the business environment, you’re expected to be experts in your field, experts in your industry, and to have answers readily available. Looking to your customers for feedback and answers seems a counterintuitive at times, and frankly, a bit of a blow to the ego.

But just as you wouldn’t want your doctor to prescribe a diagnosis without asking you what hurts first, and you wouldn’t want your lawyer to write a contract up before they learn what your intention is, you don’t want to create marketing without learning what matters to your customer. Though your doctor may perform the same knee surgery over and over again, it’s important to uncover the possibility that the solution could be much simpler first.

Customers can illuminate the way forward for your company and your marketing. But the only way that they can shine a light on new opportunities is to ask them. It doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking, after all, even a small lightbulb can outline the table you’re about to stub your toe on.