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Customer Research and the Perils of Not Listening

Customer research matters more than you think. A story, some stats, and a few insights from working in the trenches learning what drives prospects to become customers and customers to become loyal fans. 

Back in 2011, Ron Johnson took the helm of JC Penney. 

It was an unmitigated disaster.

The retail executive who transformed stores into experiences at the likes of Target and Apple believed he could do the same for JC Penney. He launched a radical rebranding effort to make the tired company hip, cool, and designer-inspired.

From ditching the private-label clothing brands customers knew and loved to the constant coupons shoppers had come to expect, Johnson set into motion massive changes that led to $1 billion dollars in losses during his year as CEO.

JC Penney’s long-standing, core customers weren’t interested in the smaller, boutique stores within a store experience or “fair and square,” “everyday low-prices.” They enjoyed the hunt for bargains, the thrill of the sale, and lack of pretension.

An Apple version of JC Penney made about as much sense as a Victoria’s Secret version of Home Depot.

What happened? How could Johnson’s experiment fail so spectacularly?

Turns out it failed for the same reason many repositioning efforts fail: No one made customer research a priority. 

In fact, it appears Johnson never stopped to listen to his customers until it was too late. He even admitted it.

“I thought people were just tired of coupons and all this stuff. The reality is all of the couponing we did, there was a certain part of the customers that loved that. They gravitated to stores that competed that way. So our core customer, I think, was much more dependent and enjoyed coupons more than I understood.”

To make matters worse, he refused to roll out changes incrementally. When asked to test pricing strategies on a limited basis, he responded by saying, “We didn’t test at Apple.”

And JC Penney suffered the consequences. 

Why the grim cautionary tale? Because… 

Customer research is still the kale nobody really wants to put in their marketing or product development smoothie.

As someone who spends her time obsessing about messaging strategy and customer-driven copywriting for clients, I’d love to say companies dedicated to learning what makes their customers tick is the norm these days. 

Sadly, it’s not. And there are cold, hard, sad numbers to prove it.

The folks at ProfitWell reached out to SaaS and subscription executives along with product leaders to see if companies were doing more than merely extolling the virtues of customer research. 

Here is what they found.

  • 7 out of 10 companies speak to less than 10 prospects or customers a month in a non-sales, research capacity
  • Almost half of these companies conduct ZERO tests a month (including marketing)
  • Out of the last 5k features built, product leaders said the vast majority were differentiable and highly valuable while the 1.2 million customers surveyed indicated most were not

The problems don’t end with building products and features customers consider marginally valuable. According to Salesforce’s 2019 State of the Connected Customer report, 84% of customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services. 

And, that’s up from 80% the year before. 

With the exponential growth of content online, potential customers have become better educated and savvier. They can do their own research, stake out the competition, and jump ship as soon as their expectations haven’t been met.

This means consistently and continuously learning as much as possible about your customers is more critical than ever. 


So why are some companies continuing to struggle with customer research? 

After working with both B2B and B2C clients over the years, I’ve noticed a few key reasons that businesses are talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

No leadership buy-in 

Conducting research takes time, costs money, and can be difficult to tie to an immediate ROI. 

Unless leaders in the organization have bought into the need and long-term payoff of investing in understanding their customers, customer research will always be a tough sell. 

Siloed thinking

Sales, marketing, customer success, every department has its own priorities, ideas, and ways of doing things. Like anything in life, cross-department cooperation isn’t a problem until it’s a problem. For instance, when you’re trying to coordinate your messaging, streamline your onboarding process or get the most out of your customer research, you need to make sure your teams are all on the same page.

Nothing kills the joy of discovering breathtaking new insights about your customers faster than team members who don’t agree with the process, findings, or changes to be made.

Lack of internal resources

Not every company has the ability to keep someone on staff solely responsible for conducting interviews, designing surveys, or running user testing sessions. Without someone accountable, customer research can quickly take a back seat to just about anything else that seems more pressing or remotely more interesting (unless you love geeking out over data and spreadsheets.) 

An expertise gap

Even if you’ve got a marketing or sales team member who digs running A/B tests or discovering where the hiccups are in generating new leads, they need to know what questions to ask, what data to look at, and how to synthesize the information in a way that can be accessible to everyone. Oftentimes, having someone on the team whose enthusiasm matches the necessary skillset can be a rare commodity.


Listening to your customers takes time, commitment, and patience. Not surprisingly, customer research tends to be the first item on the agenda to go and the last to be added back on when fires need to be put out or deadlines loom. Like any other aspect of growing a business that can be labor-intensive and have a long runway to benefits (think content marketing), it’s way easier to pay lip service to customer research than actually doing it. 

Not to mention, there are different kinds of customer research…

And it can be tricky to know where to start. Because you need to have a clear idea of your goals and which types of research will help you get the job done.

Quantitative and qualitative… yes, you should be doing both.

Quantitative research tells us what’s happening and where. It includes things like analytics, behavior tracking and A/B testing. Whether you’re seeking to improve conversions on your website or customer acquisition costs, you need to know what your baseline is and where the stumbling blocks are.

If quantitative research informs the “what,” qualitative research helps us understand the “why.” Open-ended customer surveys, interviews, user testing are all tools in the qualitative toolbox. When implemented well, they can get straight to the heart of your customers’ motivations, desired outcomes, hesitations to purchase… and so much more.

Many times I’ve run into companies who boast about how much customer research they do. When I dig a little deeper, I find they focus almost entirely on quantitative research to the exclusion of the qualitative. You can’t get the kind of insights that drastically improve your overall messaging, copy, and positioning without talking to your customers.

What’s a customer-focused company to do?

The simple answer is: go outside and hire an expert. If you’ve been struggling to jumpstart your customer research to tackle anything from acquisition to retention problems, getting a pro on your team can make all the difference. 

Why bring in an expert? 

So glad you asked. Here’s why…

  • Experts, consult with companies about understanding their customers and their marketing all day, every day. Not only do they ask the right questions but glean actionable insights – so their clients can make measurable improvements. 
  • When you bring on someone who knows how to implement a proven process with a well-honed skill set, you’re not endlessly trying to jury rig your own. 
  • You can keep your key people working on the jobs they’ve been tasked to get done. Stretching internal resources means pushing other priority work to the back burner. Then no one’s happy.

You get the picture. 

If you’re one of the forward-thinking businesses that make customer research an ongoing priority, I applaud you. If not, you’ll want to think about upping your game. The research doesn’t lie.

Interested in working together?

I’m thrilled! 

I’ve had the opportunity to help some pretty amazing subscription businesses discover what makes their customers tick. You can find out more on my website here

Using Voice of Customer Research to Lift Conversions – Case Study

Using Voice of Customer Research to Lift Conversions – Case Study

Have you ever had a conversation with an old friend and suddenly found out something totally unexpected about him? Something you probably should have known?

Like he’s been surfing all his life. Or, he likes pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. And terrible 70’s music.

“Why didn’t you ever tell me that?” you ask.

He comes back with the classic response, “You never asked.”

Now, just imagine that this person represents your ideal customers… and that conversation you’re having is on your website.


The case for asking your customers questions


Before I write any copy, I do at least a minimum of customer research. Whether it’s going through survey responses, testimonials, or even reviews of comparable competitor products/solutions, I look for the key messages that answer these questions:

  • How is the product/solution solving the customer’s problems?
  • What are the benefits of the product/solution in the customer’s eyes?
  • What are the potential sources of friction around purchasing? i.e. no facts to back up claims, lack of social proof, etc.

Why go to all this trouble? Taking the time to learn what your customer cares about and what drives his behavior means you’re less likely to write ineffective copy on your website.

Because your copy is a conversation. Don’t give your website visitors the right information at the right time and they might not take the action you’d like. Talk about things they don’t value or meet their expectations and they’ll wonder if it’s worth it to move down the page.


Increasing conversions on the website


This is exactly what was happening on the Learn Visual Studio website. LVS is a subscription model business where people can sign up for a yearly or lifetime membership to gain access to videos teaching the .NET programming language.

My CRO colleague, Dustin Drees, approached me to help him rework the copy on the home page and come to some conclusions about how we could better optimize the site as a whole.

I started the process by going through recent customer surveys. Based on responses to a number of open-ended questions, I put together lists of needs, wants, and friction points and then ranked them by how often they appeared.

Here’s what the open-ended questions told us in order of importance:



What we realized after teasing apart the voice of customer data was twofold: visitors were having a difficult time understanding how much value the courses could provide and encountering friction by not having their primary concerns addressed.


Making simple copy changes can bring big wins


Given the data, we hypothesized that doing a better job giving visitors enough information to make an informed decision before they landed on the offer would improve sign up numbers. So, here’s what we did with the copy:


Improved the value proposition

By tweaking the headline to include C# and .NET, we highlighted the specificity and unique quality of the courses. The sub-headline makes use of words used over and over again by customers in the survey responses – “practical exercises” and “step by step roadmap.”







LVS Control                                                                    LVS Treatment


Targeted the benefits customers were getting from the course while addressing their biggest anxieties

With the copy below the fold, we did this in two different ways. First, we framed their anxieties in the form of solutions the courses could provide for them.



Then, we recapped the top 3 benefits uncovered in the survey responses and rounded them out with additional copy making sure to include some of the most heavily used words straight from the customers’ mouths.


Changed the call to action sending visitors to the next most logical place in the sales funnel

Instead of continuing to send visitors straight to the Plans and Pricing page, we directed them to the Curriculum page where they could get a better idea of what was included in the courses. One of the biggest sources of friction for visitors was being unsure if joining LVS would fit their needs.


Added a video of the instructor talking about all the benefits of taking the courses

One of the biggest selling points of the program is the teacher of all the video courses, Bob Tabor. The most recent customer survey showed overwhelmingly that people were drawn to Bob’s style and personality in his videos. So, our aim was to get him seen as soon as people landed on the home page.


Conversions and learnings increased


Our variation outperformed the original on the main call to action button above the fold by 66.3%. Significantly more people were choosing to check out the Curriculum page over the Plans and Pricing page.


In fact, we saw a rise in visits to the Curriculum page overall without the call to action traffic factored in – meaning even if visitors chose not to click on the main button they were still more likely to visit that page.


And, here’s the cool thing. Fewer people ended up visiting the Plans and Pricing page but we saw more sign-ups to the yearly membership plan.


The upside in knowing what’s going on in your customer’s head


Our changes based on the voice of customer research proved visitors want more information before making the leap to becoming a paying customer. By increasing engagement with more motivated visitors and getting them on the right path, we realized positive movement where it counted most.


Interested in finding out more about voice of customer research? Check out my blog post on ConversionXL where I first wrote about this case study and go into more detail about my process.

How the Right Survey Questions Can Make Your Copy Better

How to Write Survey Questions for Better CopyAs soon as a new client wants to talk about a copywriting project, one of the first questions I ask is, “Have you done any qualitative research recently?”

I’m talking about things like customer interviews, pop up surveys and email surveys. If they have done them well, the kind of information you can get from them is pure gold.

And, it makes my job a whole lot easier… which means they don’t need me to do as much work.

If you’re planning to write copy for your site or landing page – wait… don’t dive in until you’ve done a little research

Whenever you create copy online for your business, it needs to get the ultimate job done of selling for you. Otherwise, it’s simply taking up space.

To effectively sell to your customers, your words have to do a few things:

  • Key into how they speak
  • Reflect their state of awareness of your solution
  • Address their concerns or alleviate hesitations
  • Convince them to complete whatever goal you’ve set out for them

How you do all of that begins with having a solid understanding of who these people are – what makes them tick.

Which leads us to… first things first, asking the right questions

Earlier, when I said “pure gold,” you’ll find it when you ask the right questions. I’m talking about little nuggets of insight straight from your customers’ mouths. These are pieces of information that inform your copy so you can do all those things like address their concerns and provide the ideal amount of detail to your argument depending on how aware they are or not of your solution.

Okay, that’s all well and good… but how do you go about asking the questions that will get the kind of answers you need?

The most important place to start is with the goal you’re attempting to achieve. Without clearly defining what you want to learn, you may end up spinning your wheels.

Know what you want your survey to accomplish

Seems basic but it’s worth spelling out.

Let’s say you’re developing a new sales page for an existing product. You know where you’ll be driving traffic to get to the page but you could use some insights into how your customers perceive its value.

In this case, you’d focus your questions around how and why your customers seek out a solution such as yours. Knowing the words they use to describe the “how” and “why” can help you better reflect back to them their reasons for seeking you out in the first place.

From there, you’ll want to think about the following when putting together your survey questions to achieve the best results:

#1: Keep the number of questions to a minimum

Remember that most people have a limited amount of time and patience – along with goodwill. So, keep a survey such as this in the range of 6 to 10 questions.

You can glean quite a bit of valuable information to help your copy from even a small number of questions. Keep the survey short, to the point, and…

#2: Relvancy is key

Make sure your questions are relevant to the task at hand. This brings us back to knowing what your goal is. Refrain from asking questions just because you’d like to know the answers. If they’re not going to serve your direct purposes – leave them out.

#3: Focus on open ended questions

When you’re looking for copy to swipe from your customers’ mouths, you need access to their actual words. This means asking questions that require more than a yes or no. You want them to express themselves as openly as possible.

Allowing them to merely tick a box will only give you so much, so keep them to only one or two.

#4: Bias will get you nowhere

Repeat after me, “No leading questions.” Don’t do things like include superlatives to your questions. Asking what your respondent thinks about your bright and cheery website design plants an idea in their heads about the site.

Stay as neutral as possible in your wording to generate the most reliable answers.

#5: Don’t make people think

Just like good design and usability on a site, good questions should be easy to understand. If they’re vague or overly complicated, chances are you won’t get the answers you’re looking for.

For instance, I made the mistake of asking on a recent survey the question, “What types of online copywriting frustrate you the most?”

This question confused a couple of people. Without including the words “to write” at the end of the sentence, they seemed to think I was asking them about what types of pages are the most frustrating to read.

Needless to say, the answers did little to help in my research process.

Examples of questions to optimize a landing page

Best practices are helpful but examples are even better. So let’s get down to brass tacks.

Here are some examples of questions I’ve used in the past. The answers have been instrumental in helping me craft more effective copy on various pages – including long form sales pages:

  1. “When did you realize you needed a product/service like ours?” – This is a question that will help you find out what the trigger events are going on in a person’s life that motivate him to seek out your solution
  2. “What problem does our product/service lessen or fix for you?”- Here you’ll be able to find out what your customers consider the problem to be. You may find there are problems you’re solving that you didn’t know about.
  3. “Did you consider any alternatives to buying/working from/with us?” – It’s always a good idea to know who your customers see as your competition. This will help you build a case as to why they should buy from you.
  4. “What concerns or hesitations did you have before you decided to buy/work with us?” – Being able to address any sources of friction in your copy is incredibly important. You can reflect your customers’ concerns back to them in terms of how you or your business will alleviate them.
  5. “What 3 words best describe our product/service?” – This can be a great question to add in. If you’re finding a few words that continually repeat themselves, you’ll know that they should be included in your copy.

This is just a start. Depending on your circumstance, tweak them as needed. Then, test them out.

If you need a little more help with the whole survey thing…

Not sure what to do with your questions once you get them together? Read my post on sending your survey out via email and the platforms to use.

The Dreaded Email Survey: Get Your Customers To Respond

What kind of results have you had with surveying your customers? Let me know in the comments.




The Dreaded Email Survey: Get Your Customers to Respond

These days we have a tendency to talk at each other, instead of to each other.

Think social media. There are a whole lot of voices out there screaming into the void. A social media monitoring company, Sysomos, looked at 1.2 billion tweets back in 2010 and found that 71% got no reaction. 23% of those tweets comprised @replies – or responses other than retweets.

In the race to continually churn out more and more information, it’s easy to not only lose sight of what we should be saying but how we should be saying it.


Yeah, the right words go a long way…


If you’ve been feeling like your online copy hasn’t been pushing the right buttons with your audience, it may be time to bite the bullet and get some feedback.

In a 2013 study, 74% of online consumers expressed frustration with websites that displayed content that had nothing to do with their interests. We’re talking about nearly 3/4 of the people going to websites being less than thrilled with their experiences online.


Start using the tools available to find out what your customers actually want… not just what you think they want. Surveys are a great way to start.

Start by getting your customers to answer your questions


The number one complaint I hear people say about asking their customers to complete surveys is, “I can’t ever get anyone to respond.”

I understand. I’ve had the same problem in the past. Here are a few tips to get responses:

#1) Be direct, clear and don’t ask for anything else in the email

I’ve made the mistake of confusing my email recipients by talking about too many things in the email and then having the call to action for taking the survey as almost an afterthought.  Surprise, surprise… no one answered my questions.

Make this email simple, short and to the point. Keep it to only a few lines and make the link highly visible.

#2) Phrase your email subject as a sincere but small request

If you have a good relationship with your list, many of the people on it will be more than happy to take a minute to answer your questions. Frame your email title as a question along the lines of, “Can you do me a favor and answer 3 quick Qs for me?

By letting people know that your request:

  • Will be a small commitment of their time
  • Serves a purpose – Let them know in the body of the email how it will improve their experience with your products/brand. The word because is magic.
  • Is highly appreciated and valued

you’re giving them fewer reasons to say “no” in their head.

Also, once someone agrees to a modest request, it’s far easier to get them to accept a larger one. This is considered getting a “Foot in the door” or a compliance/commitment technique studied extensively in the realm of psychology.

Go for a small yes and the likelihood of you getting a bigger one down the road increases.

 #3) Quantify your incentive (if you offer one)

Incentives to take email surveys, i.e. coupons, free downloads, one-on-one sessions, don’t always work. It really depends on your audience. So, be prepared for a bit of trial and error.

If you do decide to offer an incentive, make sure to quantify it. Let’s say you’re offering a free download to an e-book you sell. Don’t just say, “Take the survey and get my e-book for free.”

Make sure you quantify the value. If you normally charge $25 for your book, you need to tell your readers the reward for taking the survey is $25. Then, remind them how much $25 is worth – anchor it to something else like paying for a hardback bestseller at full price. Finally, hit on their fear of loss and the fact that if they pass this up, they’re essentially throwing away money and the chance to learn more about whatever it is you have to offer.

Say something like…

When was the last time you made $25 for sharing your thoughts for a mere 3 minutes?


Use good survey tools

There are plenty of online tools out there from free to paid versions that you can use. Here are just a few of the ones that I like:

Survey Monkey – They have both a free and paid version. The free version allows for 10 questions per survey and 100 responses per survey. This will not be enough for larger small businesses but if you are just starting out or want to send a very targeted survey by email to only a small segment of your list, it’s a good option.


Google Forms – They aren’t fancy (although there are some templates to choose from with graphics) but, they get the job done. Plus, Google does a very good job of allowing you to synthesize your data/answers into a user friendly spreadsheet form.


Typeform –  This service has by far the most elegant and versatile types of forms. I started using it when it was in beta and loved it. Now that it’s out of beta, there is a cost to unlock your responses – unless you only use their “Core” features. If branding and the style of your forms is important to what you’re trying to accomplish, this may be the way to go. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Start thinking about gathering your customer data now

Whether it’s through surveys you send via email, pop-up surveys on your website, or phone interviews, understanding what makes your customers and prospects tick will make for more engaging content and the copy that makes it up.

Not sure how to put together survey or interview questions that will yield the best results?

We’ll tackle that one in my next post. For now, take a look at the online survey tools and get familiar with using them.

Tell me how you’ve gotten the best results with getting your questions answered using surveys.