How to do effective customer research

Customer research is an important part of a comprehensive marketing strategy because the success of our business relies heavily on customer satisfaction levels. We don’t want to just satisfy our customers and clients – we want to anticipate their needs and fulfil them. We should be striving to impress and delight them every time we interact with them.

If you’re a business owner, you’re probably always doing informal customer research – asking questions every time you talk to someone about your business. But it’s important to also schedule in some formal research at least once or twice a year, depending on the size and detail of your database.

Here are some key things to consider before, during and after you do any sort of customer research.


It’s important to do a good job of communicating to your research subjects why you are doing the research. Is there a problem that you are trying to solve? Or is there something specific you are trying to discover or learn about your clients? For example, you may be planning your new product range for the coming year and would like to know what your prospects or customers like best. Let them know this. Many people will love the fact that you’ve asked for their input.

Following on from this, let your subjects know how they will benefit from participating in the research. You’re more likely to get a good participation rate if you let people know what’s in it for them. (And make sure there is something in it for them.)

Some people will fill in a survey because they are generous with their time and genuinely like to help. Others will need a bit of an incentive. An incentive doesn’t always have to be material goods – a prize draw, a free product or a financial discount. It can also be something that will benefit the customer eventually.

For example, if you’re conducting a survey to find out what types of ingredients or flavours your customers like, they’ll benefit from helping to create a new product that they need or want. A survey about their shopping habits and locations may help customers gain access to hard-to-find products by increasing the likelihood that they’ll be stocked in their vicinity. Similarly, a gym that surveys its members about the types of fitness classes it offers and the times they run can incentivise people to participate in the research with a “vote for what you want” approach.

A good participation rate also depends on your selection of who to target with your research – asking the right people. One business may find that new customers provide better insights, while another business may value the opinion of its long-term clients more. This all depends on the business and type of research, so give it some thought before you target your research audience. You may find that different segments of your database warrant different surveys. Remember, your database doesn’t just include customers or clients. It should also include previous clients, suppliers and possibly even strategic partners.


The success of the research process will depend heavily on how well a survey is written. This includes both the format as well as the content.

In terms of format, you will need to consider the length of the survey. If you include too many questions, you’ll get a lower participation rate or a lower completion rate. You’ll need to decide whether incomplete or partially completed surveys will still be usable.

Consider what survey software to use. If your survey is quite long, does the software allow people to pause and save their responses so that they can come back and continue at another time? The other thing that people like when completing surveys online is a gauge that shows them how many more questions they have to complete or how far along they are as a percentage of the survey completed.

It often pays to tell people at the start how many questions there are. If you decide to tell people how many minutes the survey will take, make sure this quoted length of time is realistic and accurate. Get a few people to test the survey and time themselves. Don’t use your own time as you will be faster at completing the survey than all other people because of your level of familiarity with it.

Make sure that at the end of the survey you thank people for their participation. Acknowledgement and appreciation are all part of the customer satisfaction process.


Let people know what you plan to do with the results. Where and when will you make your findings available? People love to know what the group answers to the questions were, so try to publish them (confidentially, of course).

Respondents often want to know what specific answers were received (for example, the most popular of the choices provided for our new ice cream flavour was strawberry shortcake, and the least popular was liquorice). Or they want to know where they ranked within a group (for example, 50% of the people we surveyed said they drink once a week, 35% said they drink twice a week, and 15% said they don’t drink at all during a week).

If you can provide a quick summary of your findings, this also gives you a good reason for follow-up contact. If you initially contacted people via email asking them to complete a survey online, then you can email them afterwards with the survey findings (in abbreviated form) and another thank you.

People like to know what you’re going to do as a result of the research, so tell them this as well. Let them know when the new ice cream flavour is going to launch. And maybe send them a discount voucher for their first purchase. If you’re the fitness club, let the survey respondents know what changes you’re going to make to the fitness class schedule and when the changes will take effect.

It is important to let people feel involved and valued throughout the process – especially if you’re going to be calling on them for more research participation in the future.


If you want to include customer research in your marketing plan, please get in touch to see how we can help.