Today's technology-oriented economy has changed the dynamic of how we learn from customers. When I started my career at General Mills, most methods of researching consumers were designed to confirm the direction the team was already taking. Unexpected results didn't have much power, so most companies changed slowly if at all. But in the past several years, technology companies have led the way in developing approaches that are more responsive to consumer needs, understanding that every aspect of a customer's experience has the potential to  impact growth.

So how do you find out exactly what those customer needs are, and how do you act on them? Here are a few tips based on my previous career in market research and my experiences with my own market research technology start-up, Digsite.

1. Write user stories to guide consumer-focused solutions

When we launched Digsite, I wanted to hear customers' feedback so that we could adjust our product roadmap to reflect their ideas. We created a Slack channel for everyone to post what they were hearing. I was disappointed to discover most of the feedback was phrased as suggested solutions rather than problems. Many of these solutions were either difficult to implement or created other problems. It was much more successful to train our employees to question customers so they could translate those suggestions into user stories: As a _______, I want to __________ so that __________. These stories gave customer suggestions a purpose, and gave us a consumer-centric way to evaluate potential solutions.

2. Go beyond the numbers to get at the "whys"

Once you launch a product or marketing campaign, you typically have sales or transactional data and possibly a satisfaction survey or review site where you can collect customer feedback. This data can be invaluable in uncovering and prioritizing problems or opportunities. For example, one of the metrics we track at Digsite is the number of days from a new inquiry to closing a sale. When our sales cycle was longer than expected, it focused the attention of our team on uncovering why. Our existing customers had been telling us that they wanted more advanced features, so that's what we had been focusing on. But when we turned our attention to prospective customers, we started to understand that they needed an easier way to get started. This type of exploration can't typically be gleaned from survey or operations data. They require engaging your customers in conversation. The good news is that newer tools for collaboration like private social media sites, and qualitative research platforms like Digsite, are making it easier than ever to go beyond surveys to engage and learn from consumers.

3. Test solutions early and often

As you begin to develop new products, features, ad campaigns, or websites based on customer data, make sure to test early and often. Don't wait until you're done to learn how consumers might react to your ideas. For every business I've worked on, regardless of size or industry, building early concepts and getting feedback from a small number of prospective customers has been more valuable than testing later. Why? When you iterate early, it's easier to get team alignment on making changes, especially if it happens before they've fallen in love with their baby. By honing in on solutions over time, you are avoiding costly rework later on, and you decrease the risk of doing quantitative research or A/B testing with two not-so-good solutions.

Get started by applying these tips to a single initiative for your company, such as a new product or marketing campaign. Regardless of how big your company is or what types of products or services you sell, you will benefit from learning and building solutions alongside your customers. The result will be a team energized by knowing they are making a real difference for both your company and your customers.

About the Author

Monika Wingate is the CEO and Co-Founder of Digsite, an innovative qualitative research platform that enables marketing teams to quickly learn and iterate with consumers as they build products and marketing programs. Monika previously was the Director of the A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Research at the University of Wisconsin, and held various consumer insights positions including roles at General Mills and Pillsbury.