15 ways to find out what your customer needs

Every single client I’ve worked with this year has raised this question at some point: how can I find out what my customers want?

I’m happy that they’re asking. I’m even happier that we’re having these conversations right at the beginning.

Asking “what does my customer want?” as you start working on the marketing campaign is too late. You need to ask at the point where you're designing the product or service. Otherwise, you'll end up trying to sell a product your customer doesn’t want. Or a service that solves a problem they don’t have.

Much better to ask the question early. And keep asking, to make sure you’re on track to make your customers happy.

There’s so much you might want to know

  • What do they want to buy?
  • How do they like to buy?
  • Did they get what they wanted out of what they bought?
  • What do they want you to tell them?
  • How do they want you to contact them?
  • How did they find you?
  • What do they love about you?
  • What do they find difficult about dealing with you?

And there’s no reason or excuse not to ask. Here are 15 ways you could get started.

1 Surveys

These can be paper or electronic. There are some great electronic versions available now - I like Typeform and SurveyMonkey. Ask existing customers about their experiences with you. Or share on social media to research a new product or service. If you want to target a particular group, look for specialist community forums.

Don't forget to ask people if they're available for follow-up. Surveys are great for recruiting people for interviews and testing. I like using surveys so much I've written a whole article just about them, here.

2 Interviews

These can be face to face, over the phone, or via Skype. They work best with a bit of a plan. And with a second person to take notes. You can also record the interview on your phone, if your interviewee is okay with that.

When you do your planning, think up nice open questions that will draw out lots of detail. Don’t ask loads of yes/no questions, and don’t ask the person to speculate. What people say they'll do and what they actually do aren't the same thing (especially if the doing involves parting with cash). Stick to real experiences.

3 Watch and learn: contextual inquiry

This is a special kind of interview we use in user experience design. It uncovers how people really use a product or system. Ask the person you are interviewing to carry out a task using your product or service. Watch like a hawk. Do they use it the way you expect? What do they find hard? When do they smile or frown? You can ask them to think aloud as they work, to get even more detail.

If you have any kind of website or mobile app, you can also do this online. You don’t even need to be there. You set up your test, and the testing site finds the testers. You get a video of each test so you can see exactly what people find difficult. Try UserTesting, or the free version, Peek.

4 Focus groups

The customer research cliché. Get a bunch of customers into a room for a group interview.

Groups can seem to be a convenient alternative to interviews, because you get many opinions at once. There are some risks. If you get one or two strong voices they can skew the feedback from the whole group. If your customers know you, (or even if they don't) they can worry about being rude. This might alter what they say. Getting in an outsider to run the session can help with this.

Also bear in mind that getting 10 or 12 people together for a couple of hours at a time that suits everyone isn't always easy. It can be harder than scheduling the same number of shorter phone interviews. Decent catering and goody bags or other incentives can encourage people to come along.

5 Comments on your blog

Most blogging platforms have a comment feature. Enable it. When you post news about your business, encourage your customers to leave a comment.

(What? You don't have a blog? Ok, please just nip off and read this on why you should blog for your business, and then come back.)

I know it’s a bore, having to deal with all the bots and the spam. But if you turn off comments you’re basically talking to your customers and then blocking your ears when they talk back. Why would you want to be that guy?

6 Reviews

Reviews and ratings in your online store might be a bit trickier to enable than comments on your blog. Depending on what software you’re using, you might need a plugin. But it’s a great way to get specific feedback about products.

It doesn't just help you: it helps your customers too. I’ve avoided ordering the wrong size, because of information in product reviews. If people aren't leaving reviews, you might offer an incentive to get them to fill in the form.

7 Feedback cards

I picked up this tip from a local restaurant owner. When he takes the bill over to the customer, he adds a short feedback card and pen. This way, he’s gathered loads of feedback about what his customers like and dislike.

8 Followup emails

When someone buys something from you, email them to ask them about their experience.

If you sell low volume. high value items, this isn't hard to do yourself. In a higher volume business you can use email automation. One online store emails me a couple of months after I buy something, asking me to review the product on their site. They even offer me loyalty points to do it. Funnily enough, they have loads of useful customer feedback on their site.

9 Followup conversations

Feedback can be face to face, too. Every so often when I meet with clients, I ask them if there’s anything I can do to make my services more useful to them. If you sell anything mechanical, design your aftercare service to include this kind of conversation.

10 Contact information

Offer customers every opportunity to talk to you. I expect you'd rather they didn’t ring you for a chat all the time, unless that's a key part of your service. But make sure they know how to reach you via email and social channels.

If it’s just you, and you don't have too many customers, then just using your standard email might be fine. If your inbox is breaking under the strain, get a ticketing system. These let you track emails and follow-up tasks, and share them around the team. Streak is a nifty plugin that turns Gmail into a full on CRM system for free. If customers take the time to contact you, there’s no excuse for failing to respond.

11 Listen on social media

These days, Lots of customers expect to be able to contact businesses via Twitter or Facebook. Set up alerts for any mentions of your business, especially those including ‘help’ or ‘#fail’. You can do this with saved searches in Twitter, or use one of the many social listening tools on the market.

While you’re at it, set up Google alerts for any mentions of you on the web, too.

If you get a lot of mentions and messages via social media, look for a dashboard tool that lets you manage this stuff like email.

12 Listen to clicks

Your web analytics can tell you a lot about what your customers think of your site. Where are they going, how long are they staying, what are they looking at? What search terms are they using to find you, or to find content on your site?

Content analytics tools can even tell you where people click on a page and how far down it they read. (I’m watching you right now, as you read this article...)

13 Look at the market

Who else is trying to attract your customers? What are they offering? How is it the same or different from what you’re offering?

Think about the way the business present itself. What products and services does it offer? How does it delivers those products and services? What prices does it charge? This information is useful when you’re planning surveys and interviews. It’s pretty much essential if you’re designing something new for your customers.

14 Mine reviews for information

Once you know your competition, you can look at their blog comments and reviews. What do people love or loathe about your competitors' products and services. What are the killer features? What extra features do customers want? How could you do it better?

15 Investigate forums: what do people want to know?

When I’m writing an article, I often start with Quora. I search for questions on the subject I’m going to write about. It helps me get a feeling for what people find difficult or confusing. Then I can address those things in my article.

You can try the same thing, either on Quora or more specialist forums. For instance, if you were designing a service for budget conscious people, you could go to MoneySavingExpert.com. You'd find yourself surrounded by potential customers chattering away about what they want. This is a fantastic place to start in the early stage of a business, when you don’t actually have any customers.

So there you have it. 15 ways to find out what your customers think. You don’t have to try them all at once.

If you've never thought about this topic at all, start with suggestions 10 and 11. If you’ve not ever touched suggestion 13 then please do! It’s probably the easiest thing on the list. It takes a couple of hours and a web browser, and you can learn so much from the exercise.

And of course, if it’s all feeling a bit too stressful, then give me a call.

How do you listen to your customers? What do you find difficult? What tips would you share?

Want to explore further?

Vikash Koushik at Germ.io 12 Tools to get Insights into your User’s Mind - special thanks for the tip about Peek!

Buffer Social Next Level Content: 35+ Research Tools and Strategies to Push Your Ideas Further - a useful read if you have a blog and need to keep coming up with things to write about.

UK Government Digital Service Researching and mapping your users' current experience - if you’re already doing surveys and interviews and all that jazz, you might want to try this super detailed ‘how to’ article on customer experience maps.