A Starter’s Guide to Customer Research

This guide covers four key methods to successfully conduct customer research that will help you improve overall customer experience. 

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This guide covers four key methods to successfully conduct customer research that will help you improve overall customer experience. 

Understanding what your customers want is simple, right? Just send out a survey or comment card and customers will come flocking with valuable insights you can learn and grow from. Unfortunately, as most of you know, it’s not that easy. Customers aren’t always willing to give feedback or answer a survey. In fact, estimates usually place survey completion rates as low as 10-20%.

Collecting customer feedback is difficult because customers aren’t obliged to offer you their opinions. And even when they do offer their feedback, it doesn’t always align with their actions in real life. This is where customer research can be useful.

Instead of relying solely on customers to tell you what they want, customer research can help fill in the blanks and provide a more well-rounded picture of exactly who your customers are.

In this guide, we cover four methods to get more closely acquainted with your customers, the pros and cons of each, and tips on doing the best customer research you can.

What is customer research?

Customer research is any activity, project, or action that has an end goal of gathering information from, or about customers. From what they want, to their daily routines, to the problems they are trying to solve, customer research is all about trying to get inside your customers’ head.

It’s also sometimes referred to as consumer research or market research. Companies that have a better understanding of what their customers need are able to adapt to market changes, provide better experiences for their existing customers, and speak more directly to prospective customers.

Four ways to conduct customer research

There is any number of ways you could go about gathering data from customers, but we’re going to focus on four:

  • Surveys

  • Customer interviews

  • Mining unstructured data

  • Heatmaps


When thinking about doing customer research, surveys are a very common place to start. Surveys are a very direct way to get feedback from customers, they’re generally cost-effective, and you can cast a wide net quite easily. All of those attributes make surveys a very attractive option. That said, it also means that customers are regularly bombarded with surveys.

When was the last time you made almost any action online that didn’t have a survey sent out as a follow-up after? The more and more common they’ve become, the more difficult it is to get customers to respond. As we mentioned above, most estimates put response rates around 10-20% for customer surveys. There are lots of different things that can impact how successful a survey is. The most common things that impact response rates for surveys are the length to complete (shorter is generally better), the goal of the survey (making it relevant to the respondent is helpful), and whether or not there is an incentive for the respondent.

There are also three common types of surveys for customer research: NPS, CSAT, and CES. Each has use cases that they’re more suited for, but all can be useful. Below is a brief overview of each type of survey.

  • CSAT: CSAT stands for Customer Satisfaction Score. It can be a catchall term but generally refers to a survey with a 1-5 scale to measure how satisfied the customer is. CSAT surveys are most commonly used to understand a customer’s satisfaction with a specific interaction. For example, if you call customer support they may send a survey after to see how that interaction went.  

  • NPS: NPS stands for Net Promoter Score. These surveys are very simple, and thus, have become very popular. The only contain two questions. The first asks how likely the customer is to refer the company to someone on a scale of 1-10. The second question asks why they gave the score they did. NPS surveys are meant to measure customer loyalty.

  • CES: CES stands for Customer Effort Score. Unlike the other surveys mentioned above, CES surveys are interested to learn about any friction a customer may have to complete an action. For example, you may send out a CES survey to a customer after they use your self-service tool.

Surveys are very useful, but you need to be sure you use them sparingly to not fatigue your potential respondents. After all, the only way a survey is useful is if someone responds.

To make sure your surveys go as smoothly as possible, consider these four tips:

  • Keep it short: By exceeding five minutes to complete a survey, or going over 12 questions, your response rate on average will drop 17%. Surveys taking more than 10 minutes to complete result in a 40% lower response rate on average.

  • Limit options to the essentials: it’s common to want to cover all the bases when you write a survey question. For example, you may want to know what type of pet someone owns. You could make a list of all the different species of animal someone could have, but, in the end, it’s not that practical because most people fall into just a few different boxes for pets. If you want to allow more flexibility, offer a type-in “other” option for the outliers.

  • Ask one question at a time: Avoid double-barrelled questions where you ask two questions at once, but pose it as one question. An example is, “how far would you drive for dessert and a movie?” That may seem like a fine question, but, in reality, the respondent may drive different distances for both those things, so it’s best to ask each separately so you get more accurate data.

  • Avoiding leading questions: Bias is a reality of surveys. Have another pair of eyes look over the survey and pay specific attention to how questions are framed. Are they neutral or do they lead the respondent to provide a certain answer? For example, the question, “How excited are you for our new product?” may lead the customer to a more positive answer since you’re already suggesting they’re excited. It may make your results appear better, but they’ll be inaccurate. A better way to write the question is, “Are you interested in our new product?”

Customer interviews

Surveys are a great way to collect feedback but are far from the only means. Another method to consider is customer interviews. Now, this may seem a lot like a survey, and they are similar. The main difference is that customer interviews are guided, whereas surveys are not. Also, it’s more common for customer interviews to happen in person, though it’s not required.

There are a few reasons to consider customer interviews, but we’re going to focus on three:

  • Improved customer engagement.

  • Instant feedback.

  • More in-depth feedback than a survey.

Surveys and other means of doing customer research can be relatively passive in the eyes of the customer. As we’ve mentioned, we all get bombarded with emails and requests to fill out surveys almost any time we make any sort of purchase or action online.

Since it’s so commonplace, surveys start to feel very impersonal and aren’t very inspiring for customers. Customer interviews are quite the opposite. Since they’re done 1:1 or in small groups, they’re highly engaging. Customers can see that there is someone listening to what they are saying, and trust that their opinion is valued.

Another benefit of doing customer interviews is immediacy. When you sit down and start talking with customers you get feedback instantly. You don’t have to wait for them to fill out a survey because as soon as they start talking, you’re getting valuable data. With it being immediate, it also means you can, potentially, start taking action based on the feedback much sooner.

Last, interviews allow you to get more in-depth answers than a survey. Even though you may have an open-ended question in a survey it doesn’t mean the customer will be able to articulate exactly what they want. In fact, we tend to be wrong about what we want. With customer interviews, the interviewer can pick up on nuance and dive deeper into statements the customer makes that another means of doing research doesn’t allow.

Customer interviews are by no means perfect, though. They do carry a higher cost than a survey, just because of the time needed to sit down with individual customers. Also, they have a narrower reach. Since you can only feasibly talk to so many customers, data from customer interviews isn’t usually statistically significant. Instead, customer interviews should be used to validate assumptions, dive deeply into the day to day life of your customers and to generate a thorough understanding of your target market.

It’s not always possible, but do your best to be sure you’re talking to a group that represents your user base. You want everyone represented when you’re doing interviews. Also, make sure the interviewer doesn’t do anything to sway answers from interviewees. They’ll need to be sure they’re not leading or showing some sort of bias when conducting interviews.

Mining unstructured data

When you survey customers, you can often calculate a lot of insights directly from the rating questions they answer. For example, if 8 out of 10 people are satisfied with your service, you know you have an 80% satisfaction rating. But what about all the other data customers leave you in follow-up text responses and general comments? If you’re not analyzing this free-form feedback, you’re missing out.

When we talk about data it usually falls into one of two categories: structured and unstructured data.

Structured data, also known as quantitative data, is anything you can tie a hard number to. They usually come in the form of closed-ended questions. For example, yes/no questions are close-ended.  

Unstructured data is basically everything that’s not structured data. This could come in the form of answers to open-ended questions in a survey. It could also be comments left on your website or sentiments customers leave in social media posts. It’s more along the lines of anecdotal data.

When doing research it’s nice to have very clean, consistent data. That’s why we do things like surveys that give us quantifiable insights. However, as we talked about above, customers are only able to articulate so much on a rating scale, so there needs to be more than just hard numbers. Looking into unstructured data gives you insight into how someone is feeling.

The process of mining unstructured data depends on your resources. Text-analysis tools, like our own Text Analytics feature available on your GetFeedback dashboards, are becoming more common. Even if you decide to go that route there are a few steps you should follow.

First, you need to extract the data. That’s where text-analysis software comes in handy. It uses machine learning to uncover the trends and sentiments contained in customer feedback. If you aren’t using text analytics you’ll need to dig through the data manually. Next, organize the data into segments to make it more digestible. Finally, review the data to find what conclusions can be made from it – these are the insights that you can act on.


The first three methods we mention involve, on some level, your customer volunteering feedback to you. Heatmaps are different because they’re tracking the actions your customers are taking on your site or in your product.

Heatmaps allow you to see where customers are clicking, what order, and where they end up or even decide to give up. They are by no means a magic bullet but they do offer you insights that you might not be able to gain otherwise.

You could look at this data to improve the layout of your page or app. Or it can give you insight into what parts of your site are drawing the most attention from customers. Perhaps you notice they’re having to click through three different places to get to contact your support. That tells you that there’s a potential roadblock to them contacting you.

Surveys, interviews, and looking through comments may give you similar insights, but a heatmap allows you specifics that those other methods may not. If a customer has a tough time finding something they don’t usually list out every step they took, they’re too frustrated by that point, but a heatmap could help shed more light and lead you to a solution.

The biggest thing you need to be aware of with heatmaps is that they should generally be used supplementally. They may be able to show paths people are taking or actions they’re doing but doesn’t give a rationale. To get those answers you do need to inquire directly – and that’s a great use case for customer interviews!  

If you’re interested in investing in heatmap software we have a few for you to check out:

  • Hotjar: Hotjar is a very popular option for heatmap software. They boast an impressive client list and also plenty of additional features for data visualization.

  • Google Analytics: For a lot of us Google Analytics was probably our first introduction to heatmaps. It’s a Google product so it integrates well with plenty of software and is free to use.

  • Crazy Egg: Crazy Egg is another great option for heatmaps. They also offer A/B testing options and editors for your site to help optimize once you’ve gathered data about visitor tendencies.

Customer research best practices

Now that you know some methods and pros and cons of each, it’s good to have some general best practices when conducting your customer research. Not all projects are the same but all these tips should be useful no matter what research you’re conducting.

Know the demographic you’re talking to

Different audiences require different things from you as a researcher. One of the earliest things you should do is figure out who you want to talk to. You can approach this by building a customer profile. You’ll need standard information, like age, gender, and location.

But, beyond that, you may want to know their position at work or hobbies they have. By asking yourself those questions early it means you’ll get more meaningful data during your customer research. Making sure you’re asking the right person is as important as asking the right questions.

Ask the right questions

Before you start asking your users questions, you should conduct some preliminary stage of research, analyzing information that is already available. Good starting places to consider are government sources of industry data (such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics).

You may also be able to find data from different trade organizations. Market data coming from a government source is generally accurate, well-reviewed, and is affordable or even free, in a lot of cases.

Additionally, don’t ask any questions that you already have the answer to. For example, you already know how many purchases your customer has made in the past because you have the transaction data. Rather than bother them for information that they might not even accurately provide, look closely at the data you have already stored.

Follow up

When a customer offers you information they’re giving you something very, potentially, valuable. Make sure you thank anyone who participated in your customer research. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it may also make them more receptive when you conduct research in the future.

Also, let them know what the information they gave helped you do. When those who participated know their contribution mattered it will show you’re trustworthy and weren’t asking for their time needlessly. Realistically, by following up you’re showing them respect.

Conclusion on customer research

Just because you’re interested in getting answers doesn’t mean customers are interested in sharing those answers with you. They are busy and have motivations all their own. Doing good customer research comes down to, among a few other things, being mindful.

Most methods you use will involve communicating directly with your customer. Whether that be through a survey, customer interview, or combing through comments, you will need their participation. Be sure you’re keeping in mind that these are real people with their own needs and constraints. Only ask what you really need and plan ahead to make it as smooth as possible for anyone who may offer their input.

Also, be sure to let them know it’s not all one-sided. Follow-up, let them know how their contribution helped. It will make them feel respected and may pay dividends in many different ways. Customer research can be difficult, but if you follow our best practices, you’ll be a success in no time.

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*Net Promoter, Net Promoter System, Net Promoter Score, NPS and the NPS-related emoticons are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Fred Reichheld and Satmetrix Systems, Inc.