Competition in the global marketplace is fierce, and retaining a customer’s attention for your product or service can be extremely difficult with ever-changing tastes and constantly evolving trends. Conducting ongoing market research about your customer base and their preferences will enable your team to speak your customer’s language, increase sales and, according to Matt Cooper – product and marketing consultant, and entrepreneur – grow your business two to three times faster.

A lot of teams will start a research initiative to find out a specific answer to a specific question, and once they have comfort with that answer, they stop doing research and move on to the next thing,” Cooper explained during his Lunch and Learn at Volta last month.

But implementing a Voice of the Customer (VOC) program is not a project with a definitive start and end date. It requires significant discipline and dedication from every member of your team.

“One thing I want to make sure is very clear is that treating it like a project will not develop the disciplines and the processes you need in your company to actually implement and execute on it,” he said.

For those unfamiliar with this market research technique, VOC is a framework that, according to researchers, outlines a “detailed set of customer wants and needs, organized into a hierarchical structure, and then prioritized in terms of relative importance and satisfaction with current alternatives.”

Customer research informs your product roadmap, marketing copy, and overall business strategy. But according to Coschedule, 65 per cent of marketers hardly conduct customer research – yet those who do, experience 466 per cent more success.

We pulled together some key insights from Cooper’s talk to help you start using VOC to grow your business today. There are four distinct phases that will help get you started:

Have a game plan

Start by establishing a lead for the program so that someone is accountable for implementing it and overseeing its success. That person should have a thorough understanding of the business’ goals and objectives so that all VOC efforts align.

Next, review or create user and buyer personas. Typically, personas are a snapshot or profile of your current or ideal customer; this often includes information such as demographics, career experience, or, anecdotal information like what a typical day in the life might be, or issues they may be facing.

You likely have personas to match each of your customer segments – so be sure to analyze all of them and revisit them frequently. Personas may start off as a collection of your best guesses about your customer; however, these will evolve over time as you learn more, and as their preferences change.

With those personas in mind, you can begin assumption mapping. This process is essentially a brainstorm of everything you believe to be true about your customers. One example of an assumption for new product developers could be a persona looking for a better way to complete a specific activity or task.

If you’re looking at a buyer persona – the person who has purchasing power, and not necessarily the end user – an assumption could be that they may be willing to pay a certain amount if the solution became available (be sure to include the dollar amount in your assumption). If you’re conducting research about your existing product, one assumption may be that a user persona would be willing to use a specific feature if you were to build it.

It seems pretty straightforward, right? Now here’s where it can get a bit scary.

You will have to ask yourself, ‘what if we are wrong?’ for each assumption. Prepare yourself for that scenario by understanding what the potential impact would be on your business. This doesn’t have to be a hard process, but Cooper said it’s an important one that’s often skipped.

With your team, spend an hour or so openly discussing what the impact would be to determine which assumptions are most impactful to your business and where you might want to do more research.

After that, put each assumption on a sticky-note, and map them out on a two-by-two grid, labelling their impact with low to high on one axis, and how confident you are in the accuracy of the assumptions from low to high on the other.

Go through this process with all of your customer segments, and review which assumptions have high impact on your business, but have low or varying levels of confidence in their accuracy. You should end up with a list of assumptions that includes the ones that will have the most critical impact to the business on top.

Collect your research

Now that the planning stage is complete, it’s time to gather customer research. These findings will provide key insights to grow your business, and begins where the last step left off: building a list. Only this time, you want to create a list of interview prospects that resembles your customer segments. You will need a list for each of your segments, but start with the ones that are most important to your business.

Cooper recommended tapping into online communities to start building these lists; look for Slack communities, Facebook groups or Reddit discussions that focus on a topic relevant to your customer segments. Though, you will have to check the rules and regulations of the community to ensure you are, in fact, allowed to reach out to people.

Once you have that list, you’re ready to make the ask to potential interviewees. It can be more difficult to complete this step if you are just starting out and don’t have any customers yet, but there are a lot of great tools and services out there that can help. One service Cooper recommended is userinterviews.com, which offers access to user interviews at an affordable rate. Now we know that startups can be strapped for cash, but it is worth considering your option to strategically spend a few dollars, if it means saving a lot of productivity hours in the long run.

“I would argue that the investment upfront to talk to those [people] is far less than going out and building a product you think is going to resonate with a market, only to find out when you bring it to market, it’s not,” Cooper said.

But, before you contact interviewees, you need to prepare. If you’re not asking the right questions in the right way, you may never uncover accurate insights. Cooper cautioned that it’s easy to be led astray by leading questions and cognitive bias, or our inclination to hear what we want to hear to validate our current beliefs.

“You could be talking to customers without actually getting anything valuable, and even going further than that, you could be asking them questions that give you false positives around your current assumptions,” Cooper said.

Instead, he suggested asking open-ended questions, like, “can you tell me how you currently do task or process X today?” or, “what problems have you run into?” in an effort to better understand your customer’s situation. He also recommended focusing on problems customers face, rather than solutions they may suggest.

If you’re new to interviewing customers, or simply want to brush up on your technique, check out this resource on basic interview guidelines that Cooper shared during his talk.

Analyze your findings

At this stage, you likely have a lot of data to work with. Now it’s time to figure out how to turn it into something your team can understand and execute on. One tool Cooper recommended is the HEART framework developed by Google. Analyzing the five dimensions of the framework – happiness, engagement, adoption, retention and task success – can be used to evaluate the “health” of your product. The Heart Framework outlines three different components: goals, signals and metrics.

Business objectives evolve, and so your goals, signals and metrics will likely change over time. It will be up to you to determine what indicates success. From there, you can develop a dashboard with a rating system that provides an overview of how your product is performing.

Keep the lines of communication open

Taking time to regularly discuss the insights gathered through your research can be a tough routine to establish, but it’s an important part of implementing a VOC framework.

The best way to get started, Cooper said, is to have the person leading the VOC program book monthly meetings with the team to go over the findings. Be sure to recognize team members who are consistently contributing to VOC efforts by collecting and reporting on conversations they have with customers.

Next, talk about what you have learned in the past month through customer interviews and feedback, and share the problems and evidence you’ve collected. You will also want to revisit your assumptions to see if the insights confirm or contradict the ideas you believed were true about your customers.

Another way to shape your team’s understanding of the customer and better engage with the VOC program, is to pull out the recorded interviews and watch (or listen to) them together. Don’t be afraid to have other team members sit in on a call with a customer, and let them hear the feedback firsthand – the positive and the negative. This will help your team develop a deeper understanding of your customers and strengthen their buy-in to the program.

Matt Cooper is a product and marketing consultant with over 20 years experience in building and marketing products. He is a serial entrepreneur and has gone through two accelerators in his role as co-founder and former Chief Product Officer for Swept of Swept.

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