Stop sending surveys and actually talk to your customers

It’s Monday June 15, 2020. The sun is shining, there’s a perfect breeze in Toronto, and many local businesses are working out exactly how they’re going to operate for the next few months. The “re-opening” after the COVID-19 lock-down has begun in Ontario. Despite detailed cleaning policies being drafted and blasted out to mailing lists, customers are still hesitant to return. It doesn’t feel safe. They’re staying away.

Shop owners are scratching their heads, wondering “What more can we do? What will make them feel safe? Is there something they want us to do that we’re not doing?”

Coming up short on answers, some are thinking, “Maybe we should send a survey.” Spoiler alert: you shouldn’t. Here’s why.

A few years ago, I taught a couple classes in the Web Design and Interactive Media program at Humber College in Toronto. I also taught eBook Production in the Post-Graduate Publishing Program at Ryerson University, where they called me Professor Swartz, which I still find hilarious.

Anyway, in the second year Web and Interactive Design Fundamentals class I taught at Humber, I decided to spend a lot of the semester talking about the role of research in the design process. I chose Erika Hall’s book Just Enough Research as the required text for the semester. Erika’s book is my favourite kind: entertaining, short, practical, and actionable.

Throughout the semester, I had the students design and develop a website or app. At key points in their process, we experimented with different types of user research and user testing, using Erika’s book as our how-to manual. Research and testing helped the students to challenge their assumptions, better understand users’ needs and pain points, and learn how actual people would use what they were designing.

To be honest, I didn’t care what the students were making. Some of their projects were completely ridiculous. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that the students experience first-hand how talking to people, and getting to really understand the person using their creation, could change what they made.

These students were studying to become web and interactive designers and developers, but in that class, they could just have likely been business students or marketers. The role of user research is just as essential in the marketing and business world. But why do so many business owners and marketers skip over it? Why do we get so wrapped up in the making and selling of a product or service that we forget to talk to our customers to find out if they even want or need what we’re making?

I think I know why. It boils down to two things:

1. There’s a misconception that customer research is hard. Or expensive. It doesn’t have to be either of these things. You can talk to your customers without it taking a lot of time, effort, or money. Erika explains how in her book.

2. Fear. Talking to people is scary. In all the research activities I had the Humber College students do, the one where they had to actually go out and interview users was the hardest for them. They were shy. Embarrassed. I knew they felt awkward and I made them do it anyway.

The students were much more comfortable with the types of user research that they could hide behind. The stuff that wasn’t so messy or human. They much preferred quantitative research tools, like screen recording, heat mapping, and website analytics. These tools are great at telling you what someone did. But all of the website analytics data in the world will never answer the one question that talking to your customers can answer: WHY did you do that? WHY did you make that choice?

Erika recently updated Just Enough Research, refreshing all the content and adding a chapter on surveys. Surveys are one of the most lazy, misused, and poorly executed tools in a marketers’ toolbox. Customer surveys are almost always done incorrectly. People ask bad questions, either by not being specific enough, or asking hypotheticals that force the respondent to speculate. If you ask bad questions, you’ll get bad answers, which means you have bad data, and that’s not what you want when you’re making business decisions. Garbage in, garbage out.

Surveys are one of the most lazy, misused, and poorly executed tools in a marketers’ toolbox.

My tip for you — ditch the surveys (and if you must do one, please read Erika’s book and learn how to do one correctly). Close the computer. Grab a notebook and a pen and call 5 customers. Ask them what’s going on with them right now. Ask them if they’ve visited businesses since the lock-down, and to tell you more about their experience doing so. Don’t ask speculative questions about what they would or wouldn’t do in the future. No one can answer those questions. Ask them what they did recently, and why they did it. Really listen to their answers. Ask more questions. Those 5 phone calls will give you much more insight into what your customers need right now than any survey will.

[This post originally appeared in my free email newsletter. Tips, tools, and insight for integrating technology into your small business and your life. Delivered directly to your inbox, twice a month. Subscribe here.]




Founder & CEO, Camp Tech. Author of the best-selling digital marketing book, See You on the Internet.

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Avery Swartz

Avery Swartz

Founder & CEO, Camp Tech. Author of the best-selling digital marketing book, See You on the Internet.

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