How to Learn More About Your Customers

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When you want to gain insight into emerging customer needs and behaviors, the first solution you might think of is market research. But research can be costly, and it can take weeks to implement and analyze.

Beyond the cost and time required, there are two big problems with market research.

First, you aren’t likely to find a ground-breaking new idea through market research, because you tend to ask questions based on your current knowledge, and current business.

You only find what you are looking for, so you won’t see what’s coming next.

Second, market research can’t tell you whether a customer will actually buy your product, or what they are willing to pay. Customers themselves can’t predict what they are willing to pay until they have the chance to actually buy.

There’s a better way to learn about your customers: putting them to work.

Customers are often willing to pitch in on product development, technical support, sales, and marketing – just look at Trip Advisor, or the Gmail help forums for evidence of that.

The truth is, customers can often perform these roles in a lower-cost, higher-quality way than employees can.  And, by getting customers involved in your business, you’ll learn how to improve your product and service offerings, and how to keep customers happy and coming back for more.

What role could customers play in doing your business’s work? <– Click to Tweet

  • Could they help drive innovation by suggesting or testing new materials, designs, or services? Dell and others rely heavily on user suggestions to guide their innovation priorities and to beta-test new features.
  • Could they play a role in producing your product or performing your service? Consider how IKEA enlists customers to select, pull from the warehouse, transport, and then assemble their own furniture. Psychological research says that customers actually like their furniture more (and, miraculously, are willing to pay more) if they assemble it themselves. Assembly can be a fun family process–like putting together a LEGO toy–and a source of pride for the customer.
  • What role could customers play in marketing—qualifying and referring customers, spreading the word about your product, or helping other customers choose the best model for their needs? Home Depot provides an online community in which DIYers can share design, renovation, and lawn-and-garden ideas. Armed with this information and inspired by others who have solved a similar problem, customers gain confidence to take on more, larger—and therefore, more expensive—DIY projects.
  • How can they help other users use and maintain your product? For example, Google, Microsoft, and Livescribe customers provide technical support to others through forums, and customers regularly create customized applications and enhancements that other companies can adopt.
  • Have you made it easy for customers to sell, give, or dispose of your product when they have finished using it? Best Buy makes it very easy to trade in a used phone. Customers simply find the model they want to trade in on the company website; if they like the price Best Buy offers, they can ship the phone to the company and receive a gift card in exchange. A 16GB iPhone 5, for example, is worth $91 using this system. Even if the trade-in value is small, it does help customers feel that their used equipment is going “to a good home,” or at least being recycled responsibly.

When you enlist your customers to get involved, you rub shoulders with them more often. As a result, you gain new ideas and get excited about those ideas—you become personally invested in seeing them through. You hear about customer frustrations more frequently—and those frustrations seem real and pressing

As employees observe and interact with customers who help in these ways, they often encounter energizing surprises. Customers solve product problems in unexpected ways and develop new uses for products—and ideas for enhancing and improving them that company insiders never imagined.

Getting customers involved in your business yields insights you are not seeking, that you did not expect—and that you can capitalize on to spur growth and improve company performance.

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