Getting Inside Customer’s Heads

Five market research strategies that will give your business an edge

Market research– — the process of gathering, analyzing, and interpreting information about a market; a product or service targeted for that market; or the past, present, and potential customers for that specific product or service — is a too-often overlooked way for midsized companies to gain an edge in their industry.

Using focus groups, online and telephone surveys, mystery shoppers, and customer satisfaction and loyalty studies, firms are collecting pertinent data and then taking steps to produce “actionable” results that are used to train staff, introduce new products, improve existing offerings, and enhance customer service. Armed with this research, companies can learn about key factors that lead to higher levels of customer loyalty and engagement, and subsequently higher profits and improved bottom lines.

If your company is ready to revamp its existing market research approach or try something new, here are five good places to start.

1. Mystery Shopping. You’ve heard about mystery shoppers being used at the retail level, where unsuspecting cashiers and managers fall under the scrutiny of individuals hired to, well, spy on them. The approach can be used across various industries. Paul C. Lubin, senior vice president at New York-based Informa Research Services Inc., advocates the use of mystery shoppers for any company looking for an accurate portrayal of its merchandising, customer service, sales, and other key business processes.

2. Customer Satisfaction Surveys. The Internet has made surveying an inexpensive and quick way to do market research. A good starting point is to set a goal of interviewing 20 customers per month, per location, about their experiences. The survey can be conducted via e-mail, mail, or phone using phrases such as “we understand that you placed an order during the last 48 hours” and “we want to interview you and make sure that you’re 100% satisfied with the experience.”

3. Focus Groups. Unlike surveys, focus groups give companies a more defined picture of how well they’re doing, and what they could be doing better. Companies attempting to grow market share by reaching new customer segments, for example, would do well to select a focus group from a current customer list and extract useful insights from those attendees via a conversational process, usually led by a moderator.

Jill Johnson, founder and president of market analysis and planning firm Johnson Consulting Services in Minneapolis, says that while focus groups are a popular market research strategy for midsized firms, they aren’t an end-all [or be-all] and should be combined with surveys and other techniques to get a more complete picture. “A focus group is touchy-feely and helps give you some perspective on specific issues,” says Johnson, “but it’s not quantitative in the sense that you have 12 to 15 people in a circle talking about those issues randomly.”

4. Secondary Research Sources. For companies looking for faster, more affordable ways to do market research, there are many secondary sources available in today’s information-rich business world. Johnson sees trade publications, consumer news media, and local business newspapers as great starting points for firms looking to gain insights into

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