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Getting started with customer research

Learn how qualitative insights can help you get inside your customer's heads to understand their behavior and motivations.

Laura Bosco

Content Marketer

Word nerd and people person in Chattanooga, TN. Most at home up a tree or on a trail. Has kept 5 houseplants alive for 1 year. Ping her at @lauraebosco to say hi.

We’re living in the age of the customer, where individual software users drive product decisions and market tactics. The trouble is, many software companies don’t know their customers—not really. 

A huge reason for this is companies aren’t talking with their customers. A Hubspot analysis found 42% of companies don’t survey or ask for feedback. And 81% of companies don’t have a formal customer advocacy program. Even among companies who do talk with customers, data from User Interview suggests over 60% of stakeholders don’t know how to access customer research findings. 

With findings like these, it’s no surprise teams struggle to put the customer first.

Hunches, directives, and lots of caffeine

“Trying to stuff a product down the throat of an unsuspecting bystander is a good way to build the wrong thing.”

— Drew Houston, founder and CEO of Dropbox

Customer-driven is easy to say and hard to do. In truth, most teams run on hunches, directives from leaderships, and a good deal of Starbucks—not the customer. These teams reorganize every quarter and are tasked with new features that add theoretical value.

But data indicates these hunch-based features aren’t as valuable as teams think. When ProftWell asked 2,500 product leaders to assess the last 5,000 features they’d built, leaders put most features in the high-value and high-willingness to pay bucket. Yet when ProfitWell asked 1.2 million customers to assess those same features, customers put them in the opposite bucket—low value and low-willingness-to-pay. What ProfitWell considers “trash land.”  

To build better products, gather qualitative data 

“Overall, if you want to deliver an AMAZING customer experience, the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do is LEARN more about your customers so you can custom tailor that experience to them. It's not magic. It's not science. It is simply building a tighter relationship with your customer.”

Eric Carlson - Founder, 10XFactory

To be fair, many teams want to run on customer insights, not hunches. They’ve seen the success of product-led companies like Shopify, Twilio, and Atlassian. (Product-led companies like these have over 2x enterprise value, over 1.5x revenue, and over 9% higher revenue growth than other SaaS players.) SaaS teams know customer understanding is the key to growth. It’s figuring out how to use the key that’s so difficult. 

There are two sides to the customer understanding coin
When it comes to customer insights, there are two types of useful data: quantitative and qualitative. 
Quantitative data provides important context on what customers are doing and how much. Quantitative data is fixed and measurable. It provides valuable information in contexts like A/B tests and market research.
Quantitative data is incredibly useful, but it has at least one major shortcoming: For all its statistical significance, it cannot help you understand why customers are taking certain actions. For that insight, you need qualitative data. Qualitative data illuminates the why behind the what
This why information is incredibly important. It allows teams to move from reactive to proactive—from what customers are doing this week to what they’ll adopt in the future. Amy O’Callaghan is a product manager at Snagajob who has practiced customer discovery for over a year. She’s experienced the reactive-to-proactive shift and explains, “I feel confident pushing for things that we’ve prioritized because we know they will bring value—we aren’t taking nearly as many risks with development time as we used to, and the dev team appreciates that.” 
To many product managers (not to mention marketers), that level of confidence sounds magical. But obtaining this confidence isn’t magic or even a well-hidden secret. In fact, many teams could start gathering information from their customers today using the simplest of tools: the survey. 

Why the survey is a great starting point 

Surveys aren’t a revelational idea. The earliest ones date back to at least the Roman era, and they’ve been widely used in the US since the 1930s. You probably have one sitting in your inbox right now.
For many teams wanting to collect more qualitative data from existing customers, they’re a great starting point. Chances are, your team already uses a tool (such as Hubspot, Typeform, or Intercom) with survey capabilities built-in. Surveys are also lower cost and lower effort than more robust customer research options like interviews and focus groups.
There are many types of surveys, but in this course, we want to walk you through creating one specific type: the qualitative survey. This type of survey targets a specific group of people with specific feedback questions. Oftentimes, those questions are open-ended. The goal of a qualitative survey is to generate insights that help solve business-critical problems. 

Other qualitative survey benefits include:

  • A richer understanding of the customer’s context
  • A clearer picture of the customer’s overall journey
  • Raw voice of customer data for powerful marketing
  • Context for confusing quantitative data 
  • Clarity around which experiments to pursue 

Next up we'll walk you through how to craft a qualitative survey so you can get these benefits. By the end of this chapter, you’ll have a firm understanding of who to talk to, what questions you should ask them, and which research method you should use. 

One enduring myth about surveys is this: they’re a set of semi-random questions sent out to a very random group of people. A good qualitative survey is neither of these things. 

Good qualitative surveys go deeper than personas

“A problem: even the best personas tend to be descriptive, but not predictive.”

— InVision

The idea behind personas is a good one. They’re supposed to humanize software users and equip teams to make better decisions. However, the problem with most personas is they’re largely made up. It’s easy to pull a variety of data from sources like Google Analytics to make a semi-educated guess most of your customers are “Jill,” a late-20s, iPhone-wielding, trend-setting millennial who lives in the midwest. 
While these visualizations may look great, they bring little predictive power to the table. Will Jill adopt the latest feature? Maybe—she’s trendy, after all—but we can’t really know. Because while personas may tell you what customers look like, they don’t tell you why customers buy or what is going on in their lives when they do. Personas fail to tell you whether Jill even needs that feature to begin with.
To truly understand customers’ behavior, you need to look at them from another angle. 

For richer context, use the Jobs to be Done framework

When Clayton Christensen popularized the Jobs to be Done (JTBD) framework, he gave teams a powerful new way to view their customers.
While there’s plenty of nuance to the JTBD framework (we cover that in another resource), the gist of it is this: Customers don’t buy your product. They hire it to do a specific job. 
A job, in this context, is a specific type of progress your customer wants to make. To find that job, you have to understand what your customers’ lives look like. You also need to know what pains and frustrations they experience, alternative solutions they considered, and so on. This is the kind of information that helps teams make smart moves around marketing, acquisition, retention, and churn. 

Case Study
One way Typeform leverages customer understanding is through their quarterly “customer voice” report. The customer experience (CX) team generates this report by pulling data from support tickets, churn surveys, sales calls, and other touchpoints. In one instance, the CX team figured out the majority of Typeform’s churn is due to one thing: Customers don’t know what to do after they create their first form. This insight helped the Typeform team combat churn with the “What’s your next Typeform?” campaign. This campaign appears to customers who have completed a form, and it delivers inspirational content around creating more forms. 

“Through our churn survey, we found that a lot of our churn isn’t actually due to customers being unhappy, but rather from people successfully completing a project and not knowing what to do next. As a result, beyond the typical ‘feature-based’ content one would expect in a help center, our education team also creates content that is ‘job-to-be-done-based’ in order to inspire customers to do more with Typeform than they had initially intended.”

– David Apple, VP of Customer Success and Sales at Typeform (former)

Customer segments that build JTBD understanding

Looking at the customer journey as a whole is important. But in this course, we want to hone in on what you can learn from the journey stages that intersect your product. 
From website visitors to recent cancellations, here are the lifecycle points that are particularly useful for building a JTBD understanding.  

Website Visitors
This is a customer who’s browsing your website or landing page, but hasn’t committed to your product. These customers can help you understand where your positioning does (and doesn’t) resonate and what information about your product isn’t clear. 

This lifecycle point is especially useful for marketers. Insights from website visitors can help marketers:

  • Improve positioning
  • Refine audience segmentation (who’s coming to your site?)
  • Generate content ideas
  • Identify knowledge gaps 
  • Improve onboarding experiences
  • Write more powerful copy 

New Signups
This is a customer who recently signed up for your product or service. They can help you understand what the customer is:

  • Trying to achieve
  • Hiring the product to do
  • Considering as alternatives
  • Using as decision criteria
  • Defining progress
  • Measuring progress

Maggie Crowley, Director of Product Management at Drift, asks new customers questions like, “What are your big goals for this year?” and “What kind of conversion rates are you trying to hit?” Because if you know what your customers are trying to achieve, you’re one step closer to making them superheroes with your product. 

Recent Upgrade
This is a customer who recently upgraded their relationship with you. These customers can help you answer questions like why did they upgrade now? And, what changed and pushed them to upgrade? What you want to identify here is a buying trigger. Triggers tell you how to move customers through the upgrade process more efficiently.

New Feature Activation
This is a customer who recently adopted a new feature. These customers can help you answer feature-specific questions such as:

  • What are customers hoping this feature will help them do?
  • What’s their use case?
  • How’re they using this feature to make progress in their lives?
  • What’s frustrating about the feature?
  • What can we add or change to make it easier?
  • How can we improve?

Failed Feature Adoption
This is a customer who started using a newly released feature but then abandoned it. These customers can help you identify what is difficult about a feature, where it fails to meet expectations, and what pieces of the puzzle you may still be missing. 

Feature Milestone Usage
This is a customer who has reached a specific “power user” level. They’ve hit some metric that marks them exceptionally successful with your product. This metric is usually quantitative, such as active days per month, number of actions completed, shares on social media, or total hours in the software. 

Because power users often have very different usage from normal users, they can help you:

  • Build a more detailed picture of what’s great and not-so-great about your product 
  • Define specific use cases where certain features make especially big impacts
  • Create compelling testimonials and case studies

New Cancellation
This is a customer who has recently left your product. They can help you understand:

  • What went wrong?
  • Did the product not do something they thought it should?
  • Was there a single point of failure?
  • Would anything make them resubscribe?

Over time, surveying new cancellations will help you identify common churn patterns and prevent these, just like Typeform in the case study earlier in this lesson.

How do you find these customer segments? 

Some segments are very easy to identify. New signups, recent upgrades, and new cancellations should be apparent in every product or payment dashboard. 
Other segments, such as new feature activation, failed feature adoption, or feature milestone usage will be easiest to see in third-party software. Tools like Mixpanel, Heap, and Amplitude all surface this information. Check your specific tool’s research page for additional guidance. 
Once you know which segments you can survey, your next step is deciding which segment and what to ask.