bCentral Home
Your Online Business Center

Researching your customers

Six strategies to help you get the information you need

In the belly of the information age, knowledge is power. Nowhere might that maxim be more applicable than it is with your customers.

But recognising the essential value of customer information is a good way off from the other side of the formula - what to look for, how to gather it, what it means, and how to be sensitive to privacy issues and know when enough is enough.

Here are six strategies to help you research, interpret and handle information about your customers in the most effective manner possible.

Get to know where they are coming from

Quote�Get to know where they're coming from and why�End Quote

This may sound like a cliched '60s throwback, but it's anything but. Rather, it's essential to understand where, in fact, your clientele is coming from. What are their demographics and income ranges? Do they live in particular locations? What is it about their makeup that is prompting them to choose you over someone else?

The answers to those telling queries can go a long way to getting a firm feel for the motivations of the people who buy from your company. "What you must know is the migration patterns of your customers," says T. Scott Gross, author of Positively Outrageous Service. "Get to know where they're coming from and why and, just as important, who they will patronise instead if they decide to leave."

Learn their motives for buying your product

Part of breaking down customer motivations is gaining a sense of the real drive behind their buying choices. One way to approach this is to get them to delineate between a choice and a problem solved. Put another way, are they choosing your product or service because they are reacting to some sort of mistake they want corrected - or to achieve something more proactively?

The answer can speak volumes of why they're coming to you and what you need to target to solidify that appeal. "Is it more motivating for the customer to prevent something - like stopping waste - or to attain something like increased productivity?" says Shelle Rose Charvet, author of Words That Change Minds. "You need to know that kind of motivation so that you meet their unstated psychological needs."

Do they want many options or few?

Quote�It's important to know just how wide a menu to present to customers�End Quote

The consuming public has a decidedly split personality. Some want many options, while others are more comfortable with a limited range of tried and true choices. Above and beyond the product or service itself, it's important to know just how wide a menu to present to customers.

Too much or too little can ultimately be alienating. "If you give too many options to someone they may get overwhelmed and not be able to decide," Charvet says. "With others, too few options may leave them feeling constrained."

Strive for a holistic understanding of your customers and their needs

The prior suggestions might be news to many small-business owners. But, enlightening or not, the salient point about customer service is simple - the more you know, the better positioned you are to move beyond mere selling and establish a relationship that's far more deeply embedded.

Make gathering customer information an ongoing effort

Many business owners believe that customer information is limited to the usual lineup of sources - surveys, focus groups, feedback questionnaires and the like. Those are indeed part of the overall effort. But try to make customer information an ongoing focal point.

Listen to what they say, watch what they do and encourage everyone around you to do the same. From there, take what you've seen and heard, couple it with information from other sources and try to draw as complete a picture as possible of what they genuinely value and why.

Be ethical

Quote�How much information is an intrusion into privacy?�End Quote

Any discussion of customer information inevitably circles back to a simple question: how much information is too much and an intrusion into privacy? The best way to deal with that before it festers is to make things clear from square one.

Lay out an information code of ethics that specifies what you want to know, how you'll gather it and what you intend to do with it. Moreover, make it clear to your clients and customers that they will be steering their own privacy ships. Remind them that anything they tell you is based entirely on their willingness to do so.

��Like what you've read? Try our free newsletters.

What next?

How do you identify good and bad customers? Learn how to spot the difference here.

Decide what your company stands for and create a brand to be proud of.

Privacy is always an issue when it comes to customer research. Read our advice about data protection and see how other firms do it.

Sign into Microsoft Small Business+ for free web-based training and software support.

sign in
Security information

Find a local Microsoft Small Business Specialist to help with your IT needs

Microsoft Small Business SpecialistMore info >

What do you want your PC to help you with?

What do you want your PC to help you with?

Free business newsletters - subscribe now

Our free newsletters are packed full of business advice and ideas - plus all the latest news

Security information

Get the latest bulletins and updates direct from Microsoft