Whether you want to brainstorm new approaches to support or you want to validate ideas for new offerings, your customers are a critical audience. So how can you work with them effectively and with positive outcomes?
- Define what you want to know. Brainstorming improvements to existing support offerings is different from validating pricing proposals. Prepare your questions in advance and test them with a small group of friendly customers (yes, it’s fine to use only friendly ones at this early stage.)
- Use a proper sample. It’s tempting to only speak to “friendly” customers, or customers from a particular country, or time zone, or customers above a certain size, but naturally the validity of the data will depend on your sampling so sample widely — or be cautious about applying the findings to the entire customer base. If you choose to sample widely pay attention to: product lines; geography and language; tenure as a customer; size of purchases; satisfaction with the product, support, and company; and job title.
- Go high enough. Asking a technical contact his opinion on pricing won’t take you very far: go to the decision maker instead. On the other hand, the technical contact is the right person to ask for feedback on how well the new search engine is working.
- Hold individual interviews. Most customers are very amenable to spending a small amount of time with their vendors (say 30 to 60 minutes). That should be enough to elicit basic brainstorming information or validate a proposal. Be sure to work with the account rep so you don’t inadvertently step into the middle of a purchasing decision.
- Hold group discussions. Group discussions are wonderful because the various participants can feed off each others’ ideas and quickly generate pros and cons. On the other hand, group discussions are harder to organize and, more problematic, can inhibit free discussions on the more touchy topics of pricing. Group discussions also tend to be dominated by the more vocal participants so it’s always a good idea to keep the groups relatively small and homogeneous so the smaller customers have a voice too. If you host a User Conference you should find that the attendees are good candidates for group discussions.
- Consider online or written surveys. An efficient way to conduct surveys on a large scale is in written (today, electronic) form. Response rates are crucial for validity so you can attach a small prize in a raffle format. Keep the number of questions to a minimum and allow respondents to comment at will (and capture their contact information in case you want to learn more.) Written surveys work well for validation exercises, perhaps not so well for brainstorms.