So much for pouring thousands into product testing labs and super-sized R&D teams. As businesses (and business leaders) are becoming increasingly aware, finding ways to better get to know your customers, and make more data-driven decisions, is a surer way to find success going forward. Like I was recently surprised to discover while researching my book Make Change Work for You, customers are now the #1 most reliable source from which organizations consistently get successful and innovative new ideas.
Ironically though, not many businesses have effective systems in place for listening to, and learning from, the insights they're providing. Below you'll find several hints and tips that can help your business become far more effective at gathering and interpreting customer information—and translating insights into actionable strategy going forward.
1. Polls and Surveys
To truly get to know your customer, and gain the information that you need to make better data-driven decisions, it pays to invite them to contribute feedback and insights at every turn. Polls and surveys—which provide a level of visibility into customer satisfaction; how buyers perceive your products, services and solutions; and how well any programs or campaigns are connecting with them—are an essential measurement tool here. Happily, a variety of free and paid apps, software plug-ins, and online services make it easy to build email questionnaires and pop-up forms, and integrate interactive queries into either your website or online shopping system.
To get objective feedback as you go about polling end-users, be sure to ask smart, concise questions, one at a time, that are designed to keep answers specific and focused. If you'd like more open-ended feedback instead, you can always add separate questions to surveys at the end, as customer queries should always start simple before slowly ramping up in complexity. Likewise, when asking for customers' input, be sure to remember that it's important to a.) incentivize feedback with rewards (i.e. free downloads or discounts), b.) remind participants that their contributions are valued, and c.) promptly respond and follow up at every turn. The more shoppers feel you're listening and that you care, the more they'll share.
2. Product Trials and Tests
One of the best ways to gain additional customer information and feedback, and prompt rapid learning, iteration and growth inside your business, is to invite customers to try products, services and solutions while they're still in development. Providing early product and service trials not only helps you see how well customers react to these solutions, but also gain deeper insights into how audiences are using them, and potential concerns that they may encounter. Oftentimes, these types of interactive, hands-on usability tests can surface opportunities or issues of interest that are hard to predict in advance, and can help make strategic next steps clearer.
Rapid prototyping also allows for rapid improvement and iteration, as user feedback and data-driven decisions can regularly help inform development, leading to enhanced product and service results. Early testers—who are often rewarded for their participation with additional perks and bonuses—won't just relish the opportunity to help you improve your business offerings either. They'll also provide you with detailed customer information and insights every step of the way. Such approaches can provide a highly insightful and cost-effective approach to focus-group testing and data gathering that's hard to beat.
3. Crowdsourcing and Contests
Want to turbo-charge the amount of customer information coming in? Try crowdsourcing contributions, a.k.a. putting out open calls to the general public. Whether asking shoppers to submit comments, suggestions, videos, photos, graphic designs or other forms of content, many consumer-facing companies are finding success by running regular creative contests and democratizing the decision-making process. (Say by asking audiences for help when naming products or designing new ad campaigns.) Likewise, many business-to-business providers are finding similar success by creating “open innovation" portals where private and public enterprises, and even members of the general public, are invited to submit clever business concepts and solutions.
Surprisingly, many of the world's top brands (and government agencies) are using these types of solutions to positive effect as well, including a.) hugely accelerating the pace and scale at which they can surface promising new ideas, topics and trends for exploration, b.) putting a more human face on their organization, and c.) vastly multiplying the amount of feedback they're able to ingest, so they can make smarter data-driven decisions faster and more frequently.
4. Community Outreach
Even in an always-connected age where more and more interactions are going online and digital with each passing day, there's still no substitute for speaking directly with shoppers. If you want to truly get to know your customer, don't forget the importance of talking with them frequently, which is why so many businesses are now investing in community managers, as well as message boards, chat rooms, presences on social networks and other dedicated online forums. Creating comfortable and inviting online spaces where customers are able to congregate, converse and share insights and information can be among a modern business's most effective ways of sourcing crucial information.
Providing early product and service trials not only helps you see how well customers react to these solutions, but also gain deeper insights into how audiences are using them, and potential concerns that they may encounter.
Likewise, it's also important for your business to serve as a thought leader within these spaces, and routinely prompt constructive discussion and debate around emerging topics of interest. The more robust your online presence, and more you interact with your user community, the more informed your business strategies and solutions will ultimately be.
5. Social Networking
Think of social networks as the world's largest cocktail parties: spaces where people like to gather, share ideas and discuss the latest topics and trends. Accordingly, learning to be a better listener on these channels can help your organization more readily adapt to changing times and trends, and even predict customer needs before customers themselves are aware of them. Not only do social channels provide a helpful resource through which to gather candid input from shoppers by reviewing comments, conversations and interactions, you can also glean helpful insights by monitoring the tone of these interactions, and which topics are trending, that can help shape any business plan for the better. A wise organization not only makes a point to participate on social networks, but also invest in tools for staying attuned to which subjects are trending online—and what people have to have to say about them.
From leveraging analytics tools that can reveal how much time people are spending on your website (and where they're spending it) to holding regular meetings with your customer service and tech support teams, there are many high- and low-tech ways to get to know your customer better. Happily, such solutions don't always have to be difficult or expensive to deploy. Today's organization has more tools and solutions for gathering customer information, and transforming data-driven decisions into successful business results, available at its fingertips than ever. Better yet, these solutions can be implemented with less time and expense than ever before as well.
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