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If You Really Want to Understand Customer Needs, Avoid Surveys

Most surveys provide little value to understanding customers and can lead you down the wrong path for your business with a false sense of security. Here's what to do instead, and how to use surveys properly if you absolutely have to.

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Whether you're a business just starting out or have been around for decades, you've probably used surveys to keep a pulse of your customers. It's a tool that has been around for almost 200 years and continues to drive many insightful nuggets of wisdom to help drive the strategic direction of any business.

As a research tool, surveys can be very useful. There is nothing methodologically flawed with them. However, problems can arise when they are either misapplied or used as a replacement for other forms of research that focus on actual behaviors and the "why" behind customers' decisions. As an entrepreneur, you want to avoid using surveys as a validation tool that just confirms your preconceived notions on what you think are the customer problems.

When to use surveys

The value of surveys comes with gathering large amounts of quantitative data in a short amount of time. Also, if you have done your homework and spoken to your audience you can validate some of their characteristics across a larger population.

  • Persona validation: Do you know your customers in and out? Perhaps you have done some initial deep-dives with people to get a foundational understanding of behavior, preferences and attitudes. Surveys help here to validate what characteristics are more prevalent across a larger population and give a glimpse of your market size to know who you go after.
  • Analytics follow-up: Maybe your data shows people don't purchase something as much on Android vs iOS. Is this because of something with Android users in particular or something more broadly associated with your app/website/service? Surveys can help point you in the right direction here.

Related: 6 Ways to Get People On Board When Seeking Customer Insights

The dangers of running surveys

Just because it is incredibly easy to run a survey doesn't mean you should. Unless you are well versed in survey design, statistics and removing bias from all survey language, surveys can do more harm than good.

  • Surveys are easy to create, send out and count up. As humans, things that are easier for us to comprehend feel more true. The ease of use makes it seem like surveys are valid, no matter how false or misleading they can be.
  • Survey results — especially statistics — stick with us for a long time. Numbers make things feel objective and truthful. If a question was worded in a certain way or seemed leading, you will never be able to tell from the results that this was the case.
  • Survey data can never be questioned because flaws can never be spotted. Did the person understand the meaning behind the question? What was their reaction? How were they thinking through the answer? You will never be able to determine any of this from answers to a survey.

Why you should talk to your customers

As entrepreneurs, we have the mindset of "build something as quickly as possible and then validate and adapt." However, wearing many hats and being time-poor is no excuse to take the easy way out when it comes to understanding your customers. Oftentimes, the richness and context of how our offering fits into a customer's life are overlooked. Having meaningful conversations — like interviews — will result in incredible value-adds:

  • Get a glimpse into your customers' lives to understand their experiences, challenges and frustrations. Use this to propel your business with more ideas on how you can serve your market better and meet their needs.
  • Form a clearer picture of your market positioning and messaging to your core audience through deeper insights into the "why" behind whatever you think the problem is.
  • De-risk product failure with a higher level of confidence that your product or service will be successful in the market.

Related: 3 Methods to Help You Determine What Customers Really Want (and Really Don't Want)

Survey best practices, if you must

Surveys should never be the defacto research method to use when you don't know the right type of research to do. However, if you simply don't have the time to talk to your customers, make sure you keep the following in mind when running surveys:

  • Do not ask people what they like or don't like. This is a self-reported attitude that can change as quickly as the days of the week, and never maps to any user behavior.
  • Do not ask people what they need from a product or feature. Customers are unable to articulate what they need. Additionally, asking anyone to make a prediction of their future behavior is a one-way ticket to bad data and should never be used to inform any meaningful business decision.
  • Do not ask people to remember something from beyond a few days. High chance you will get a low-quality answer

Surveys can and should be used, but never as the easy way out for quick confirmation. Pilot testing your survey even with one person through an interview can dramatically help reduce any confusion about what you're asking. By asking the right question to the right people in the right way, you have taken the first step to help inform your business with high-quality data.

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