It is time to break the corporate habit of doing surveys as the best, and often only, method of listening to your customers. There are so many other options out there.

Recently we wrote about why too many surveys are bad for all of us. We also told you that we are very committed to helping organizations understand customers better. These aren’t contradictory statements because there are so many other ways to get that great understanding. Here is what we recommend you do:

1. Be strategic with the research you do

  • Develop an Enterprise Research Plan: Ceatro Group recommends that organizations take the time to design an 18 – 36 month research plan for the entire organization, or at least at the customer segment level, that includes multiple methodologies. This type of plan allows the organization to streamline the number of times it does research and the number of times it touches customers for research while also allowing all teams and departments to get (most of) their research needs met. Developing the right cadence of research execution to satisfy the organization’s needs takes a little finesse (let us know if you need help, of course). Stick to the plan and your teams and budgets will benefit from the regularity and reliability of it.

  • Do a mix of broad and detailed research: Your Enterprise Research Plan should include research methodologies and research topics that benefit multiple teams and initiatives at the same time. Spare your customers the multiple research contacts (and repetitive questions) that come from internal discord and silos by gaining internal alignment on research needs and questions before the research vehicle ever leaves your building. For example: the new product platform research you do every 18 months can also collect customer satisfaction and Net Promoter insights. The sales win/loss research you do with each account will provide product, sales, service, and marketing feedback. The usability research you execute every 6 months to a subset of the customer base can include brand equity questions and vice versa. And the exploratory innovation research you do every 24 months will include a bit of it all.

2. Listen to what customers already tell you

  • Use every necessary interaction to learn:  We have argued before that organizations aren’t really listening to their customers. Not only are you not listening to their subtle cues you aren’t listening when they say things like “can I give you some feedback?” You are often waiting to do research to collect the feedback, so why listen now?Research (again, don’t get us wrong: we love research) that causes your customers to do things they wouldn’t normally do with you like do an interview, take a survey, or come to a focus group is an unnecessary interaction as far as your customer is concerned. It doesn’t help them get to their goal  (the main reason they interact with you). We aren’t saying they hate very minute of it, sometimes they even like it, but it shouldn’t be your main way to learn from them. Your main way to learn should be things customers naturally do with you – the “necessary interactions.”Every time your customer interacts with you in person or through technology they tell you and show you how they are feeling, what they think, and so on. Sometimes they say it or show it overtly like the customer who crumples up his “take this survey” receipt in front of your cashier or the warehouse worker that tells you your larger server boxes are coming in damaged. Sometimes they give off more subtle clues that need to be interpreted like the customers that sighs each time the call center agents asks them to do a task to solve the problem or the doctor who continues to take paper notes during the eRecords system roll out.

  • Train everyone to listen:   Consider your employees your main channel for customer understanding, train them to listen and hear without a bias, reward accordingly, and integrate it into your Enterprise Research Plan (or “listening system”). You will improve your understanding of your customer on a daily basis tremendously and find your employees more engaged and empowered.

  • Use technology to your advantage:   Please notice we put people as your listening weapon first and technology second. We did this because you need your people to understand what is coming from the technology and how to apply it. Companies that rely solely on technology to understand their customers are left unable to apply the insights the right way. You need to use both and this is a great time to partner with technology. There are lots of technologies today that can help you listen to your customers actions in almost every channel without intercepting them and there are so many great technologies that are about to come to fruition that will help create new channels to listen and understand.  Try a few out and see what works best for your organization and your product/service.

3. Review the information you already have

  • Be sure you don’t have it already: Ceatro Group always builds “Review Existing Research” into every project to ensure we aren’t wasting our client’s time and their customers’ time for something that already exists in house. About 50% of the organizations we work with do a lot of research and about 50% don’t do enough research. In many cases the research that has been done wasn’t done with multiple inquiries in mind (see #1 above) and so we can’t reanalyze it for our project. But some of the time the existing research allows us to remove some line of inquiry from our study or give us insight into how our client’s customers respond to research.

  • Look at all your sources: When you do this review. previously commissioned research is only one source for review. Check out warranty data, call center notes, email exchanges, sales win/loss research, contracts, tech support logs, and so on.

  • Make sure you can find what you have: This is the number one failure point when we go to review existing research – no one can find it. “Call Sarah. She did a study.” “Kofi holds all the warranty analysis” “Huh … I’m pretty sure I remember a SVP from the finance team presenting something last year …” Strive to store all your customer insights together and make the data and insights easily consumable. Easier said than done which is why we use the word “strive” but this is an essential step to understanding your customers.

4. Consider other methodologies and venues

  • What do you want to learn: This is a critical question in picking a research methodology.  Customer research is a science – well, it is actually a few different types of sciences – and the tools you use will affect the outcomes. We encourage our clients to pick the methodology after they determine what they want to learn or what they want to accomplish with the learnings.  We also encourage companies to work with a partner to pick the methodologies – either an in house research team or an external vendor (again, we are, of course, happy to help) to ensure you can accomplish what you wanted in your research efforts. There are a lot of research methods to choose from and, thanks to technology, more coming every day. There are some listed above in #2 and #3 and a few more that we recently used here. Don’t go it alone!

  • What stage do you want to learn it in: Where and when you want to apply the research insights is very important in determining which methods to use and should be a factor in the design of your Enterprise Research Plan. Gathering insights once a product is in the market is different than gathering insights while it is in development and that is also different from gathering insights to determine what product you might make in the future.  Be wary if a colleague or a vendor is promoting a one-size-fits all methodology (like a survey) – it might work for your needs, but it might not. Make sure to look at the implications of the method on what you are trying to accomplish closely.

  • How can you best access your research targets: In person, by phone, by email, by web, at a conference, in their home, at their office, at your offices, in the month of April, only on sunny days, during an activity, only during basketball season . . . again, there is no one size fits all for accessing your specific research targets. Email and web surveys are the default because it takes very little effort on the part of the company and you can often get more people to reply but it doesn’t necessarily get you the best insights or the right targets. Choose the best methodology for you and your research targets.

Be strategic in your research planning. Listen to what customers are already telling you. Review the information your already have. Consider other methodologies and venues. Break the “Let’s do a survey” culture!