Picture this: your customer experience (CX) team has gone through your customers’ feedback, identified regular pain points in the customer journey, and found solutions to reduce friction and retain more customers. However, they did this several months ago and suddenly customer retention is starting to dip down again. What happened?
Chances are that the change in customer needs wasn’t actually sudden but a gradual shift. Your customers’ needs are continually evolving, and smart businesses like yours know how important it is to keep up with them. After all, CX is never a one-and-done process, and your CX team should conduct regular customer experience research to stay up-to-date and build better experiences.
To help your business start researching the customer experience at your organization, this guide will dive into a few essentials for how to develop a research program. We’ll cover:
- What is customer experience research?
- Why is customer experience research important?
- The Customer Experience Research 5-Step Process
- 3 Customer Experience Research Methods
Customer experience research requires the right strategies, tools, and dedicated personnel to deliver the insights your CX program needs. To begin, you’ll need to start with understanding CX research best practices. Let’s get started!
What is customer experience research?
Customer experience research is the process of systematically observing and analyzing how your customers interact with your business and the thoughts, feelings, and even frustrations they have as a result of those interactions.
Standard CX programs should strive to survey customers and collect their feedback about various aspects of the customer journey. Customer experience research differs by honing in on specific parts of the customer journey with research questions and taking a hard look at the data collected over time to note changes in customer expectations.
Why is customer experience research important?
Customer needs and expectations can change for all sorts of reasons. These can stem from external sources, such as new trends in technology, or even from your business’s own practices, like launching a new product or service. Plus, as your business grows and you attract new customer segments, you’re bound to see changes in customers' needs because you have new customers!
No matter the reason behind the change, research allows you to keep up with evolving needs and create a better experience, helping your business:
- Boost customer retention. Just because a customer’s needs change doesn’t mean they need to look for a new service or product if your business can adapt with them. By staying up to date and evolving alongside your customers, your business can retain them for years to come.
- Identify new opportunities for improvement. A change in customer needs can signal new opportunities for your business. For example, research that finds customers are looking for quicker support response times might lead to your business exploring new automation practices or streamlining communication altogether.
- Increase net promoter score. Happy customers are happy to recommend the services and products they enjoy to friends and family. By continually researching the customer experience and maintaining customer satisfaction, you can boost your net promoter score and attract new customers along with keeping your current ones.
Plus, remember that your business isn’t the only organization researching customer experience. Regularly taking steps to improve your CX program keeps you competitive with other businesses in your industry and can even help you rise above organizations that aren’t as quick to adapt to their own customers.
The Customer Experience Research 5-Step Process
If you’re ready to zoom into a part of your customer journey and conduct research to learn more about customers’ needs and your current performance, what process should you follow? We break it down into five key steps:
1. Start with a goal.
Customer experience research starts with a goal, which usually takes the form of a question. An effective question guides your research and helps you note when your research is finished and whether it was successful.
When picking a research question, start by asking questions about your CX research, such as:
- What is the scale for this research? What part of the customer journey will your research focus on and how many customers does your research impact? For example, if your research is focused on the discoverability phase of the customer journey, then your customer experience research would impact new customers. Additionally, consider your research’s timeline and the tools you’ll need to complete your research.
- How will the results of this research improve CX? Ultimately, ask yourself if your research question is worth pursuing and why? Knowing how your customer experience research will benefit your CX program and business as a whole can help you choose research projects that will have the most benefit and ensure you can explain those benefits to obtain buy-in from leadership.
- What assumptions does our organization have about the topic we’re researching? Sit down with your team and ask them what they and others at your business think the answer to your question might be. Like with a science experiment, generating early hypotheses helps you understand what you already think. Then, by getting assumptions out in the open you can form research questions that test them directly.
Try to get as specific as possible and use information from previous research projects to help formulate your question.
For example, a software provider might have previous CX reports that indicate customers find their subscription process confusing. Then, their research question would be: What aspects of our subscription sign-up page could be seen as unclear, misleading, or difficult to understand? They might then focus their research specifically on website interactions, take note that improvements will likely lead to more subscriptions, and dive into their own assumptions about the language and jargon customers will understand.
2. Map the customer journey.
Customers interact with your business in a variety of ways before they finally make a purchase. These interactions make up the customer journey. Businesses chart a customer’s progress through that journey with a customer journey map.
Customer journey maps walk through the five phases of the sales funnel: awareness, consideration, conversion, loyalty, and advocacy. In each, note how the customer interacts with your business (for example, this could be your website, front desk, or support line), what actions customers take, and any pain points they might encounter.
You can create customer journey maps that take an in-depth look at a specific moment in the customer journey. For example, a business that makes sales but struggles with retention might make a customer journey map entirely devoted to the loyalty phase of the sales funnel, or a hotel that receives regular negative feedback about their check-in experience might map out all the interactions involved in that specific process.
After choosing your customer experience research question, create a customer journey map focused on your area of investigation. Doing so will help you better understand what customers are doing, what they’re feeling, and what moments of truth they’re encountering.
For example, let’s go back to that software company questioning what parts of their subscription process are turning away customers. For their customer journey map, they would note the exact actions customers are taking, from landing on the subscription page, navigating to the instructions about how to sign up, reading the details of the subscription plan, selecting their chosen plan, going to check out, entering their payment information, and receiving a confirmation method.
By doing this, they might discover several smaller pain points that get overlooked in a zoomed-out customer journey map. For instance, maybe they decide the descriptions for different subscription plans are worded pretty similarly, which might be confusing, or they even notice their payment page doesn’t specify what subscription plan is being purchased, which has resulted in a few customers buying the wrong plan by mistake.
3. Choose your research methods.
How will your business conduct research? While looking back at past feedback can be an effective way to get started, your customer experience research will likely need new, specific data to answer your research question.
As such, you’ll need to determine what type of research method to use. Think about your research question and start brainstorming potential research methods by considering:
How many customers do you want to get feedback from? How many members of your CX team are going to work on research? Will your research affect other staff members at your business? You can answer these questions by deciding how many people you want to involve in your research and how much data you aim to collect.
Type of data you’re looking to collect.
Will quantitative or qualitative data be more helpful for your research? Or are you looking for both?
Quantitative data is descriptive or subjective information that can be expressed in numbers. For example, if you conduct interviews as part of your research, you might have 50% of respondents rate their satisfaction with your business’s customer support response time as a 5/5.
Qualitative data is information that is difficult to measure and can usually be expressed through specific stories. For example, a customer might share a story about how they were extremely frustrated with customer service wait times but highly appreciated the sincere, empathetic response they received when they did get help. These emotions are difficult to measure, but can be incredibly valuable for certain customer experience research projects.
Feasibility of data collection methods.
Is it practical for your team to collect data the way you want? For example, it would be great to have all of your customers completely fill out a survey with detailed responses. However, it’s unlikely every customer will. Even if they did, your team may not be able to handle that high a volume of responses.
Additionally, remember that it can sometimes be worthwhile to use more than one research method, especially if the data from your first attempt didn’t exactly answer your research question.
4. Start research.
Once you know what you’ll research and how you’ll research it, you can almost start your research. Before diving in, there’s just a few more things to consider, including:
- If team members will need training to collect data. This could include training in how to use your CX software to accurately enter data, generate reports, or use surveys. Or, this might include other skills, such as the ability to be an effective interviewer.
- Which customers you will include in your research. Even large scale projects can’t collect data on every customer. Be thoughtful about who you include in your research and conscious of potential biases that might crop up based on who you pick. For example, optional surveys tend to gather the most responses from customers who either had really good or really bad experiences with little middle ground. Or, if you’re doing a focus group, try to pick a range of customers that represent your business’s various different audiences.
- Timeframe for your research. How long will your research take? For some research questions, you might be able to plan your project and wrap it up in a week or two, whereas others might span months.
During your planning, try to create a framework that future customer experience research projects can follow. After all, CX is continually developing and an effective program should regularly jump into new research projects to meet new customer needs.
5. Analyze results and implement solutions.
After conducting your research, it’s time to look at your data and determine what conclusions you can draw from it.
Use your CX software to organize your data into a useful report. This might be a bar graph showing positive vs negative responses or a word cloud based on which terms came up the most among responses.
Then, look for recurring trends and patterns. If you notice the same term coming up repeatedly, try pulling a few recordings from interviews or written responses from surveys. These can show customers’ exact thoughts and help you factor in qualitative data.
Then, sum up your data into conclusions and determine if they answer your research question. Compare the answers to your initial outlined assumptions, as well.
For instance, that software subscription company mentioned above might come to the conclusion that the differences between their products are not outlined clearly enough on their website. This would answer their question: What aspects of our subscription sign-up page could be seen as unclear, misleading, or difficult to understand?
However, in this example they may have found the issue was not related to their assumptions, which were that customers would have trouble understanding jargon. Instead, their product descriptions were too vague and not specific enough.
From there, the next step is brainstorming potential solutions to improve CX. These may be short or long-term projects. Either way, your CX team should be ready to begin the research process anew when customers begin responding to changes you implement.
3 Customer Experience Research Methods
You can learn a lot about your customers just by watching them. This can be deliberate observation in which customers are aware they are being observed in order to improve CX or more passive but still notable efforts to observe common customer actions.
For instance, you might have a member of your CX team sit in your reception area for a few hours over the course of a week to observe how customers respond to your check-in process. Or, you might ask staff who interact with customers on a regular basis to report any common trends they notice.
Observation can be an especially useful research method for online behavior. While you won’t physically see your customers, you can use analytics tools to document customer behavior on your website. For instance, you might track how long customers spend on certain pages or if there is a noticeable drop off point from when customers first visit your site to making a conversion.
Observation is also a useful method if you want to see how customers normally respond to various interactions at your business, including customers who may not otherwise fill out a survey or wish to participate in an interview. However, you won’t be able to hear their specific thoughts, meaning you may misinterpret some actions customers take.
2. Focus Groups and Interviews
Interviews allow you to get insight into individual customer’s thoughts by asking specific questions either one-on-one or in small groups, while focus groups are useful for understanding how customers influence each other by encouraging them to respond to and interact with one another. Both options involve your CX team meeting with customers and asking questions directly.
When choosing who to interview or invite to a focus group, first consult your core audience demographics. Then, choose participants so you get an accurate sample of your entire customer base. Be sure to have many participants picked out to ask as not everyone will say yes. But if you do get more yeses than you initially thought, then you have a new group ready for your next research project.
Prepare questions about your products, services, and various situations customers may encounter based on your research question. Have your interviewer listen and ensure they have a reliable method for recording your participants' answers.
You can even have customers act on various tasks, such as navigating your website or attempting to set up your product. For tests like these, have participants narrate their thoughts aloud to provide insight into their motivations, assumptions, and thought processes.
Interviews and focus groups can provide detailed answers to your specific questions, but keep in mind that these are controlled environments. Plus, even when carefully selecting participants, you can’t always guarantee their interests and motivations will align with your average customer’s.
You can also assemble a customer advisory board (CAB) made up of your highest impact customers. CABs can be especially useful for high-level strategy and research questions that potentially impact your entire business.
One of the most effective ways to conduct research quickly with a large number of customers is through surveys. As mentioned, your CX team should already use surveys to guide your research’s direction, as well as identifying customer pain points and providing quick responses during moments of truth to retain customers.
While surveys you’ve already conducted can be a useful starting point, you can send out new surveys or adjust your current ones to include questions relevant to your ongoing research. This can be especially useful for customer experience research where you expect customer needs to continue changing over a given period of time.
Of course, large businesses can potentially receive thousands of survey responses, which are difficult for any CX team to sort through. If you haven’t already, consider partnering with a CX company that can provide survey and data reporting tools, help you craft effective survey questions, and transform your data from raw numbers and responses into useful reports with clear insights.
Customer needs change and your CX program should change along with them. Start researching your customers’ experiences by looking at the feedback you’ve already gathered to identify specific pain points and begin forming research questions.
By regularly conducting customer experience research, you can improve your program, retain customers, and find new ways to make their experiences even better. You can learn more about how to build a successful CX program with these resources:
- Closed-Loop Customer Feedback: How to Drive Real CX Results. In addition to implementing solutions that improve CX overall, your business should continue to resolve individual customer’s concerns with a closed-loop feedback system. Learn more in this practical guide.
- Improving Customer Experience in Banking: 7 Promising Trends. CX in banks is rapidly evolving with new technology, making customer experience research a top priority. Learn more about developments in CX specific to banks.
- Get Started Measuring Patient Experience in Clinical Trials. Clinical trials are an especially important setting to measure patient experience in. Ensure your patients are treated with empathy and have positive experience with this guide to establishing a PX program.