Your customers are the lifeblood of your business. Their needs and wants impact every aspect of your business, from product development, to content marketing, to sales, to customer service.

This means you need to constantly be learning from your customers, and adapting your strategies based on what you've learned. Forrester Research calls this becoming "customer-obsessed", and they aptly describe what's at stake for businesses who don't take this path: "Simply put, customers expect consistent and high-value in-person and digital experiences. They don't care if building these experiences is hard or requires a complex, multifunction approach from across your business. They want immediate value and will go elsewhere if you can't provide it."

Learning about and from your customers isn't always easy, and requires a commitment to continual observation. This post will look at 9 ways you can become "customer-obsessed", learning from your customers at every point of contact.

1. Social media monitoring

It's not enough just to monitor your own social media properties for customer research purposes. While important conversations will certainly take place there, these only represent a small fraction of the online conversations you need to be aware of.

Social Mention screenshot

Some key ways you can engage in social media monitoring are:

2. Ethnographic research

If consumers knew (and could clearly articulate) what they need and want, it would make our jobs as marketers so much easier.

Now, I'm not saying that people are dumb, or that they're incapable of expressing their opinions and desires. But sometimes observing how someone lives and works in their native environment can give us different insights than simply asking them.

This type of observation is called ethnographic research, and it can give us critical insights into the real-world habits and needs of our customers. Anthropologist Ken Anderson explains it like this: "Unlike traditional market researchers, who ask specific, highly practical questions, anthropological researchers visit consumers in their homes or offices to observe and listen in a non-directed way. Our goal is to see people's behavior on their terms, not ours. While this observational method may appear inefficient, it enlightens us about the context in which customers would use a new product and the meaning that product might hold in their lives."

While most businesses won't have the budget to formally observe customers using their products in real life, many of the strategies outlined here will help you observe your customers' behaviors online. While not a perfect substitute, it can still give you key insights into the everyday activities and habits and search patterns of your target customers.

3. Website analytics

Your website analytics offer far more information than just pageviews, bounce rates and conversions - if you know where to look.

Using Google Analytics, you can learn everything from which devices your customers use, to how they navigate around your site, to what products or services they're searching for on your site. In the demographics section, you can discover the percentage of males versus females who visit your site, along with their average age.

Beyond just this basic data, Google Analytics can also give you important insights into the interests, "affinities" and habits of your audience. A great place to start is in the Audience -> Interests section of GA.

Google Affinity categories screenshot

This data, known as psychographic data, can offer important insights like what types of products they're in the market to buy (look at 'In-Market Segments'), along with an overview of visitors' very specific interests (found under 'Other Categories').

4. Blog and social media comments

Perhaps the #1 way to learn from your customers online is to regularly read and respond to comments, questions and criticisms shared on your blog and social media posts.

This is the place your fans and followers are most likely to be honest, telling you about themselves, and sharing their thoughts and opinions about your business.

One reason these "customer conversations" are so important is that they can show you what your customers actually care about...as opposed to what you think they care about.

It can also reveal mistaken assumptions your company may have about your customers. Peter Friedman, CEO of LiveWorld writes, "Customer conversations can also reveal that the message the brand intends to transmit via its marketing is not the message being heard. Either the marketing needs to be improved, the target audience changed, or a fundamental product change is needed."

5. Keyword research

Keyword research is a task often left to SEOs and content marketers. However, it can be a powerful tool for anyone in your organization who wants to learn what your target market wants to read, learn and buy.

The process usually starts with coming up with a list of seed words. For instance, in the world of content marketing, some seed words and phrases might be content marketing, SEO and traffic generation. Using these as the foundation of your research, you can dig deeper to find other, related phrases your audience might be interested in.

Ubersuggest screenshot

Your research could reveal some very important insights about your customers and prospects including:

If you want to learn exactly how to do keyword research, either for content optimization or customer research, start here: The Startup's Guide to Doing Keyword Research Like The Pros.

6. Surveys and questionnaires

When you think of customer research, chances are you think of surveys. Used alongside other strategies, they can be an important way to learn more about your customer's needs, wants and habits.

Surveys and questionnaires are often completed anonymously, which has its pros and cons. Customers tend to be more honest (often brutally so) when their identity isn't attached to their responses; however, this can also make it difficult to ask followup questions or to rectify situations.

Some tips for making the most of your surveys include:

7. Ask questions at every touchpoint

There's a Chinese proverb that says, "He who asks a question is a fool for a minute; he who does not remains a fool forever". If you're serious about improving your business and offerings, become a lifelong student by constantly asking questions.

Asking questions can be scary, as it can potentially reveal problems and criticisms. But those problems exist whether you know about them or not; and wouldn't you prefer to be able to fix them?

Disney understands the importance of constantly asking for feedback, and have integrated questions at each customer touchpoint. Dave Frankland, Principal Analyst at Forrester research writes, "At Disney, every touchpoint is an interaction... they're driven by two customer-focused elements: 'know me' and 'be relevant'." In each customer interaction, the company is constantly asking questions that give them a better picture of their customer's needs and wants; it's a process that's built into the way they do business."

8. Online communities

Forums, Reddit and Facebook and Linkedin groups can be treasure troves of customer information. These are places your target market hangs out, and the depth of information you find there may just surprise you.

Reddit home improvement screenshot

Here's why: When you directly ask your customers about their needs and desires, you get an answer that's restricted to a moment in time. They'll answer based on what they think and need in that moment.

However, by paying attention to conversations happening over time, you start to identify themes that come up again and again from various sources. This can provide important insights into topics of interest and common problems that you can address via your products, services and content.

9. Customer complaints

Bill Gates once said, "Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning." Given that for every 1 customer who complains, there are probably 24+ others who remain silent, we should therefore be very grateful for those who have the guts to share their criticisms!

You'll likely receive criticisms and complaints via many of the avenues mentioned in this post: on social media, in online communities, in blog comments, etc. Some other sources of customer complaints you should pay attention to include:

Email unsubscribes:
Your frontline staff:
Review sites

Final thoughts

Learning from your customers is imperative to the success of your business. Remember that they aren't static, one-dimensional characters, but are always growing and changing. It's your job to continuously learn from them so you can keep up.

How do you learn from your customers? Share below!

Published on: Aug 1, 2016