For thousands of years, people have conducted market research. I don't mean with fancy focus groups or complicated conjoint analysis, but just by asking questions and listening to the answers.

Using the art of listening is so crucial to the success of your company's marketing, that to deny it is to invite failure. Follow along as I show you how to use marketing research to funnel knowledge into your marketing programs.

Why research is so important

In the early 1990s, when I started my own consulting business, I conducted my own little research survey. I wrote on a piece of paper a 100-word description of what my consulting practice would look like; that description included (1) the target audience for the practice; (2) what these buyers wanted from a consultant; and (3) how my practice would be different from others.

Then, I set up coffee appointments with 20 business leaders and put this written description in front of them. After asking for their feedback, I sat back and listened.

Their advice was invaluable. I learned that my positioning, focusing on growing companies without an in-house marketing department, was on target (it remains my positioning today). I also learned that clients like these were less interested in hearing about my Fortune 500 work experience and more interested in knowing how I would help organizations their size.

Because of this research, I believe my company's marketing ended up being more focused and targeted.

Research can also perfect products

A short while ago, I worked with a major company that was launching a brand new zero-turn radius riding mower. New to this market, the company and I wanted to perfect the product's design before launching, so we organized a series of consumer focus groups. Up to this point, I had been working with the internal design team to develop a product prototype. We were supremely confident that we had designed the right product for the market, and saw the research as a mere rubber stamp for the design.

However, when we showed the prototype to the focus group participants, we were shocked by their reaction. Almost every single participant didn't care for the front end design. "Flimsy" and "breakable" were two words that we heard often, and words that clearly didn't support the brand's positioning.

During the next week, we scrambled to redesign the front end and hastily organized a series of one-on-one research interviews with these same participants to get feedback on the new design. In the end, they loved it, and as of this writing the product has been launched successfully and has contributed significant, incremental revenue to the company.

I shudder to think what might have happened if we had launched the product in its original design, without this research. I'm convinced the product would have bombed, costing the company millions of dollars and tarnishing its reputation.

Research can deepen relationships

Whatever the size of your company, you'll find that research strengthens the bonds between your company and its buyers. The bottom line is this: People like it when you ask for their opinion. They feel they are contributing to your company's success—and you learn more about their perceptions of...

  • Your company identity
  • Your competitors
  • New markets and products for your company

Research firm TARP has found that for every person that complains, 26 others don't. So, if 10 customers have complained recently to your company, another 260 may have held their tongues while turning to your competitors. Properly conducted research many times acts as a feedback machine designed to root out these people's thoughts.

Other important research payoffs

  • Research can reestablish dialogues with long-lost customers. Sometimes, a survey is all that is needed to re-establish a dialogue between a company and a customer that feels ignored.

  • Research gives people a chance to vent. Sometimes, people just want to air out their feelings. This doesn't mean they will abandon you or your company. To the contrary, they may respect you more for giving them the chance.

  • Research can find new growth opportunities right under your nose. A client of mine in the healthcare data industry told me a great story about his company's market research. It seemed that several years ago his half million dollar company decided to survey its customers. One of the questions it asked was, "What new products would you like to see us offer?" Of the 90 responses it received, an overwhelming number said they would like to see the company offer market share data.

    The company moved quickly, and within less than a year began offering market share data. The result? His business more than quadrupled over the next two years.

  • Research can increase awareness of ancillary products. Good surveys not only collect data but also disseminate information. As long as it is handled tastefully, you can educate consumers about your company's new products or services with a survey.

  • Research can sometimes reactivate dormant customers. I once helped an industrial services client survey its past customers, ones it hadn't heard from in over a year. After asking for their feedback on the previous work, we included the following question: "Do you know of anyone, in your company or outside of it, who could benefit from the services XYZ provides?"

    The response was overwhelming. In the end, the survey generated over $700,000 in sales from both active and dormant accounts.

The best low-cost market research tools

  • One-on-one interviews. This is one of my favorite research techniques. In it, you (or, better yet, outside consultants) speak directly with your company's customers, one at a time. Via phone or in-person, you walk the respondent through a standard questionnaire. Each respondent is asked the same questions and the interviews are designed to take less than 30 minutes each.

Here are some questions I like to use in these interviews:

    • At that time, why did you become a customer of our company?
    • With respect to (your industry) what are your biggest challenges you face?
    • How did you first learn about our company?
    • How does our company help you with these challenges?
    • Who are our biggest competitors that you deal with? What are their strengths & weaknesses?
    • What are our greatest strengths? Weaknesses?
    • What do we do that no one else does in the market?
    • What other capabilities or services would you like to see XYZ offer?
    • Which of our competitors do the best job of marketing?

  • Post-purchase surveys. To keep the lines of communication open between you and your customers, administer a quick customer-satisfaction survey right after delivering your product or service. It will help your company keep tabs on how well you're doing with your customers and can also head off potential problems. Given everyone's preoccupation with time, I limit my company's survey to one page. It's a fax-back survey with just five questions, and 90% of all surveys are returned.

Here are some questions that can be used in a survey like this:

    • What one thing did you like about doing business with us?
    • What one thing would you change about our company?
    • When you bought our product, what did you really end up with?
    • On a scale of 1 to 10, please rate us on the job we did for you.
    • What would it take for you to stay with us for five years?

  • Networking. These days networking gets a lot of attention as a lead-generation device, but I also see networking as a market research vehicle. Next time you, or someone from your sales organization, sets up a networking meeting, identify one piece of research information you'd like to obtain. It could be something about your major competitor (e.g., What do you know about XYZ Company?) or something about your typical customer behavior (e.g., What additional services do you see customers in our market needing?) Gathering vital research information can sometimes be as cheap as a cup of coffee.

  • Blogs. Blogs are a great way to encourage dialogues with your market. Savvy marketers are now using blogs to...

    • Elicit instant feedback from customers
    • Have simultaneous conversations with customers and prospects
    • Facilitate the spread of buzz about your company.

Ever since starting my blog (, I've noticed that it serves as a useful feedback device. I hear from experts far and wide, and dialogues can sometimes break out between them with me as the moderator. If you're interested in starting a blog, visit or

  • Customer Clubs. When I was the marketing director at a mattress manufacturer, each quarter we'd host an informal conversation with our customers. We'd invite 5-10 customers to our headquarters and conduct a no-holds-barred conversation with them about our products and marketing. Boy, were they flattered.

Over popcorn and soft drinks, we'd show them new product prototypes or share preliminary ad concepts. All of this proved extremely valuable in developing our product mix and marketing messages.

Just as important, these customers left the meetings with a renewed feeling of loyalty. We'd cared enough to ask for their input, and most were very appreciative of that. I'd highly recommend customer clubs as a valuable (and cheap) way to gather market feedback.

  • Mystery shopping. Used widely by the retail industry, these studies hire an outsider to pose as a shopper at a company's store. Studies like this help your company identify strengths and weaknesses in the following areas:

    • Store appearance
    • Service quality
    • Selling skills of your personnel
    • Product selection
    • Pricing

To get the best results for this type of research, hire an outside firm and be very specific about the kind of feedback you're seeking.

  • Usability testing. If your company's Web site plays a significant role in building the company's identity, you may want to consider usability testing. Usability testing determines how well users can interact with your company's website. In a typical web usability test, one or two users sit in a room and use the Web site to perform certain tasks, while company marketers watch, listen, videotape or take notes. For more information on usability testing visit the Usability Professionals Association Web site ( or read Steve Krug's excellent book, Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.

One reason to use outsiders for customer research

If your company can afford it, consider hiring an outsider—either a consultant or researcher—to conduct much of this research. Many customers are reluctant to share their true opinions for fear of damaging the relationship.

I have interviewed countless customers and prospects for my clients, and I'm always a little surprised at how open they are with me. Perhaps they feel more comfortable telling the unvarnished truth to an objective third party.

Some other tips on market research

  • Always thank respondents after a research session. Send flowers or just send a thank-you note, but find a way to recognize the time and effort they've sacrificed for your company.

  • Whenever possible, try to quantify research results. Phrase questions along the line of "On a scale of 1 to 5, how important is it to you that ________." This produces data that can be quantified and is easier to draw conclusions from.

  • If your product is widely distributed, keep your eye on consumer feedback sites like e-pinions ( and Amazon ( Some of the most valuable insights into your products will come from these sites because consumers are free to air out their true feelings, using their own words.

In closing

I've spent over two decades in marketing, and one thing I know about companies that are successful marketers is that they commit to research as an ongoing marketing strategy. If you're really serious about improving your company's identity, you must have a market research program in place.

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Jay Lipe is the president of Emerge Marketing LLC (, a firm that helps growing companies develop marketing plans. He is the author of the books The Marketing Toolkit for Growing Businesses (Chammerson Press, 2002) and Stand Out from the Crowd: Secrets to Crafting a Winning Company Identity (Kaplan Publishing, fall 2006).