So you want to talk to customers

Micaela Shaw
5 min readDec 1, 2022

Understanding and communicating the voice of the customer is a key skill in any marketing job description, but what does it really look like to practice this as a team?

Imagine the first major Martian colony has been discovered.

We decide we want to open up a business to sell products to them, but we haven’t actually been to Mars. We’ve only heard of the existence of these Martians.

Getting to Mars seems hard. So we build a product that sounds good to us. Then we ship it to Mars. Only then do we do some customer research to figure out how to sell it.

Unfortunately, this is the way a lot of businesses approach consumer insights.

We build something and then assume we just need to figure out how to communicate the value. When it doesn’t work, we blame it on bad marketing.

But for truly customer-focused businesses, mining for customer insights is a regular recurring practice And rather than stick this in a single department’s JDs, customer research is a partnership between marketing, product, sales, customer support and sometimes even broader teams like executive leadership and engineering.

As a marketing leader, you can champion a customer-first culture. But doing it as a one-man show probably won’t work.

To be successful, everyone with the power to determine the value proposition in a business needs to be sold on:

  1. The customers we’re serving
  2. What they want
  3. Why they want it

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There are three types of customer insights that your cross functional team will want to cover if you’re serious about getting to know the Martians.

Quantitative surveys help you get a lay of the land, but it’s still a high level view.

#1: Quantitative Surveys

Survey data (when statistically significant) will help you understand what preferences/characteristics divide martians.

  1. Categories of martians in your addressable market (What percent are woman vs. men?)
  2. Preferences among martians (What percent prefer red vs. blue?)
  3. Correlations (Woman martians are more likely to prefer blue)

Use survey data to develop an understanding of the viewpoints that divide your audience most distinctly. These can serve as a baseline for persona or ideal customer profile development.

Data helps you define a sketch of people, but you need to go deeper to fill in your understanding with another type of research…

Qualitative interviews help you understand the story behind individual preferences.

#2: Qualitative Interviews

Interviews help you understand the why behind preferences. Use interviews to uncover individual routines, life situations and values.

You shouldn’t be just be asking whether a person likes red or blue in an interview. Ask why they like red.

When you find out they love because it reminds them of their favorite grandmother’s sofa, you begin to understand their emotional drivers.

You should also avoid making the entire interview about you and your product. The value of an interview is to understand what people want, not necessarily how they respond to what you have.

Understanding the patchwork quilt of an individual’s emotional drivers is key to crafting value propositions that drive action.

Where people actually are willing to spend their time and money is another matter all together.

Ethnographic Studies or Live Product Tests

Ethnographic studies involve either shadowing or videoing someone using a product in their native environment. Live product tests involve watching someone actually trying a product or experience in the wild.

This is the better way to get insights on your product vs. customer interviews. This helps you understand what people actually do vs. what they say they do.

If launching a true product is too expensive, sometimes testing prototypes with groups like usertesting.com audiences can be a helpful (although imperfect) proxy.

There are lots of products people will tell you they think are cool. There are fewer products people will actually spend their hard earned money or time on.

Environmental topics are notorious for surfacing a big delta here. In a survey, people feel a moral obligation to say things like, “I’m very conscious about water conservation” or “I do everything I can to save energy.” But when the cameras are rolling in a home, we commonly see the same people leaving lights on and choosing the “heavy” cycle on the washing machine.

Understanding the areas where people are willing to follow through on their needs or beliefs shows you where to focus.

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Each form of customer research helps you narrow your lens around where to focus product features and messaging.

  • Qualitative- Understanding addressable market and categories that delineate preferences. From this, you can decide which customers you’re best equipped to focus on.
  • Quantitative- Understanding the why and emotional drivers behind people’s preferences. From this, you understand what problems customers are trying to solve and what value propositions matter to them.
  • Ethnographic or Live Product Test- Understanding what preferences/needs people are actually willing to act on. From this, you can understand product features and behavioral trends most likely to drive adoption.

While this kind of work often starts when a company is trying to define personas or prepare for a product launch, customer research is most effective when seen as a living body of work. As cultural and economic trends evolve, so will your customers and their preferences.

A shared team culture within product and marketing that promotes continuous customer listening drives alignment internally.

But what about cost?

Sometimes what prevents marketing teams from embarking on customer insights work is the assumption that you need some fancy research firm to perform it. You don’t! While research firms can be helpful for building panels and conducting research in a clean way, panels can be recruited from customer lists, partners, friends and family and networks.

Some ideas that have worked for me:

  • Run an employee and customer competition to see who can get the most contacts to complete a survey.
  • Offer $50-$100 Amazon gift cards in exchange for 30 minute interviews.

If you’re in a category that people feel has the potential to benefit them, you’ll be surprised at how many people are willing to share their perspectives.

Mapping to other data

Once you and your team start putting your ear to the ground, you’ll find insights from customers everywhere that augment this body of research. Some places to look are NPS data, product reviews, company reviews, recruitment team surveys, Google Analytics, social media comments and more.

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