Tourist shop in Kyoto, Japan

How to do customer research to get more sales right now

As a creative marketer, a lot of my time spent researching, teaching and working with clients is talking about product, brand, customer loyalty and sales. Well, my clients talk about sales, we talk about that less in academia… Not much time is spent talking about WHO the customer is.

Our poor customers are further neglected – mostly my clients talk to me about their ‘target customer’ and it might go something like this:

Me: “Okay, so tell me who your customer is…”

Client: (Mulls this one over awkwardly /jumps in immediately with PR blurb) “someone on a good to high income, someone who is design led and edgy, likes good quality pieces and something a bit different, someone who is aspirational, maybe a bit quirky. Ideally, it would be ———- ———- from that show on the telly. We love her”.

I continue the conversation by asking who ACTUALLY is buying their product, where their sales are actually coming from. Unfortunately, this is almost always an unknown answer.

Yesterday, I met with one of my menswear clients and we chatted about the apparent gap between the academic focus on research and strategy in teaching design students, and the desire among fashion and creative start-ups (and larger organisations) to learn about how to achieve sales. And sales right now.

I absolutely believe that if your business is struggling to achieve sales, this is because there is a problem somewhere – often an easily rectifiable problem. This could be an issue with the design, the price, how and where it is promoted or sold, OR that you are trying to sell it to the wrong customer.

Knowing your customer, and knowing what they think of your offer, is understanding the problem, which is a major part of achieving sales right now. It is also a fundamental part of building a brand through long term customer loyalty. And in the digital age, the power of the happy consumer is high – they take to cyberspace in review forums, Facebook and Twitter et al to laud (or lambast) products and experiences. And where good reviews flow, customers and sales will follow.

One of the speakers at Marketing Week Live! at Olympia this June told of his research into his customer’s preference for word-of-mouth referrals: online reviews are now replacing family and friends as trusted sources when deciding whether to buy. And for start-ups, growing a social media community full of post-purchase satisfied customers that talk about how great your product is (and how it has met their needs) is gold dust. N.B. See suggestions below on how to do this through your research…

So, research and knowing who your customer is = more sales. Simple!

Step 1: gather some info – background research

Hang on, before I start – don’t I have to do hundreds of questionnaires for research to be valid? How will I analyse all that???

Here I would say you are undertaking a sample to take the temperature of your customers. I suggest that you read through all your responses and work with really significant comments or any trends and themes that come up. Just do as much research as you can time-wise and leave the mega-research to the large scale corporates!

So, how do I know who my customer is?

Your customer is who is buying your product, currently or recently. And by customer, I mean end customer or person. Unless your customer base is trade and you sell business to business.

If you sell online from your own website, you will have some data on your sign-up form. What – no sign up form??? Okay, more on that later…

If you have physical (as opposed to digital) stockists, visit the store and find out who is buying or not buying your product. Also, note if people are not looking at your product. But don’t just observe, speak to customers in your stockists – this is the best opportunity, and better than speaking to staff although this is also useful. But you have to ask the right questions. Again, more on that later…

If you have digital stockists, you will need to speak to them about how they can help you with your data. They –hopefully – can arrange some reports, if you are not able to access these directly yourself.

Back to the sign-up form. Many start-ups think they have clients’ details on Facebook or perhaps Twitter through likes or shares. You want to capture their email addresses and find out more about who and where they are, and to keep in touch with them – social media doesn’t tell you this, and they may move or close accounts, or just be infrequent users. On your website you can easily include a sign-up form and ask questions about email address, gender, location, postal address, age if you wish and an opt-in (legally required) to receive emails. On social media, you could run a genuine competition to drum up interest (e.g. new product launch or Christmas etc) and part of the entry process is filling in a form with the above details and again the opt-in. You would then publicise the lucky winner back on Facebook etc. This will give you social media content, and the forms give you necessary info, but also… a mailing list!!!

How do I know if they are buying my products?

On your own website you can follow your click-through and analytics data (for example free Google Analytics) – you can see where they have come from (e.g. your Facebook page, or from online publicity), what part of your website they explored, and also if they have visited you but not bought several times or stalled on a specific page– this suggests there is an issue, we will explore the buying process later. With stockists, visit the store and speak to the staff and buyers – it is good practise to be checking in very regularly to see what is selling and what isn’t. You want your stockist to keep you on if sales are low, and a good relationship where you can offer an alternative product is important.

How do I know what they are buying?

Again, online, you will have a record of sales and products sold. You will see what’s selling and not selling. Not selling is an issue. In stockists, from your observation or staff and buyer feedback from specific questions.

How do I know what they are not buying?

Here, the question really is “how do I know WHY they are not buying?” Presumably you are aware of what customers like and don’t like – this is evident in what is selling and what isn’t. But make sure you do keep track, and not just assume…

When I was studying my Masters degree, I worked part-time for a small womenswear designer in Glasgow. From my desk in the office/workshop overlooking the store, I was developing a marketing plan. For this, I explored with the designers who their customer was, how often they shopped, how much they spent, whether they were repeat customers, what the best selling products were etc, etc. Then, just to be sure, I conducted – very basic –research through a simple questionnaire and chatting to the customers about these same points. The difference in answers was incredible – these really lovely, talented and hard working designers who were in the same place as their customer were completely wrong about who their customer was, what they liked or wanted or what they were willing to spend. The designers were still thinking about their target customers and how they would like them to be. They weren’t asking the right questions…

Step 2: customer research – ask the right questions

What you really want to know is:

  1. why are they not buying my product
  2. why are they not buying more of my product more often
  3. how can I get them to buy more of my product more often

Of course, you can just come out and ask these questions on your website, via social media, face-to-face at the stockist or your own store. But a more softly, softly approach is recommended. With lots of thanks at the end! You can even turn it into content for your social media – Instagram photos of happy shoppers showing products they like (or have bought if online) with a ‘why they like it caption’.

I am a real fan of a short questionnaire. If you are face-to-face with your customer, you can ask these questions in an informal, chatty way. Online you can do a short poll, or ask for open feedback in a post. If you want more information you can create a form with a hyperlink. Look at Survey Monkey or Google Forms amongst others.  Any of these ways, encourage people to answer your few questions by offering them a thank you – a small discount off their next/first purchase, or a free gift. You would need to provide them with a promotional code that they then give at the time of purchase (and that you remember to apply!).

I would suggest you ask questions similar to the samples below, in your own words. You will need to create a couple of multiple-choice options, options to select yes or no, and also leave space for the customer to explain:

  1. Please tell me your gender: Male/Female
  2. Please tell me your age from the following brackets: 18-24, 25-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, 60-69, 70-79, 80+ You might want to adjust these brackets and make smaller or larger. Be careful not to overlap numbers!
  3. Are you likely to buy from (your brand)? Yes/No. If no, please tell me why not.
  4. If yes, which product(s) are you most likely to buy?
  5. If yes, what has encouraged you to buy?
  6. If yes, is there specific occasion or purpose for buying our products?
  7. If there was anything we could change about the design of our products, what would it be and why?
  8. What do you think of the price of our products? Too expensive, about right, could charge more (multiple choice option). Please explain why.
  9. Have you found it easy to find and explore our products? Yes/No. Please tell me why or why not.
  10. Is there anything we can do to make this process easier for you? If yes, please explain.
  11. How did you hear about (your brand)? Please tell me where.
  12. What newspapers/magazines/social media/blogs/review sites/other media do you normally visit? (Here you can do multiple choice for each and include an option for ‘other’, or ask it as an open question).
  13. Where do you normally buy (similar products) from? Please tell me why.

These questions will tell you what customers like about your product and don’t like, what is encouraging them to buy or will encourage them to buy, what’s working well online or instore for them, and where the barriers are. This will help you make changes to build more sales.

I would recommend you ask all these questions, but you can edit this list if you wish. However, questions 1, 2, will tell you who your customer is, and questions 11, 12 will tell you where you can promote your products more successfully. Question 6 will tell you the type of products that are selling e.g. workwear, weddings etc, and also so you can promote these somewhere suitable. Question 13 is worth asking because these are your competitors, and once you know who your customers are buying from as well as (or instead of) you, then you can make changes to build more sales.

All this research stuff might sound like a bit of an effort. Perhaps you don’t want to hear negative views? Or perhaps you feel slightly awkward asking questions?

But let’s imagine what happens if you don’t do your background research on your customer, or you don’t ask them for feedback: you won’t know anything about them, where they are, how to reach them, what they want to buy, how much they want to pay for it, and, crucially, why you are not making enough sales. Most likely, you will continue to not make enough sales right now…

So here’s to sales! I wish you the best of luck with it.

If you have any questions after reading this, then feel free to email me on hallandco@outlook.com, or drop a comment on the blog.

Next Creative Planning Basics post: Competitor research: Competitors – yes, you do have them, and why you need to know all about them.

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