Beyond Surveys: 5 Methods to Learn More About Your Customers


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Surveys are great, but there’s still a lot to learn about your customers. Now is the time to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

Research shows that customer response to online surveys is dwindling, especially among Millennials. That mobile, in-the-moment generation might not want to take the time to reflect on past experiences with your company. Even so, I know I am not the only CX professional who is nowhere near declaring surveys a dinosaur.

Many of us hold to our commitment that customer surveys form the foundation of a solid CX program. More than a first step, they are a valuable reference point, a benchmark for any other feedback-gathering initiative your organization might undertake. They’re like the report cards kids bring home from school: they provide a great overview of how things are going in general, but the parent-teacher conferences and school visits are important, too.

That’s why I’m also an advocate of using other methods to reach customers, methods that go beyond the survey. Some of these are traditional — focus groups and one-on-one conversations with customers — and others leverage new technology tools that give remarkable and immediate insight into how customers feel about their interactions with your company. You can go beyond surveys with these five methods.

1. Go one-on-one.

While analyzing the results of a recent customer survey, my team and I took note of a specific segment that was more dissatisfied than other groups, but the data didn’t shed light on why they were unhappy. It just didn’t give us enough information as to what the specific issue was and how we could fix it. So we hired an independent agency to conduct focus groups and interviews of customers representing the ‘troubled’ segment. (Sometimes it’s a good idea to bring in a third party to ensure you get the most candid feedback.)

This process helped us zero in on the issue, understand the source of the dissatisfaction, and make improvements. It’s a low-tech method—we conducted the discussion sessions in small groups at user conferences—but an effective way to get to the heart of an issue.

2. Leverage speech analytics for in-the-moment responses.

Customer surveys look back, asking customers for a review of previous experiences with your company. Speech analytics tools let you see what’s happening now. They record in-the-moment interactions, analyze the tone and vocabulary used during those conversations, and raise flags whenever strongly positive and strongly negative emotions are expressed.

One telecom client of ours advertised a deal offering new customers a low price for bundled services. When existing customers saw the TV ad, they called in, requested the bundle at the low rate and were told, “No,” by customer service agents. Speech analytics immediately alerted the firm’s marketing department to the strongly negative responses. Marketing sprang into action and offered a discount that helped smooth the ruffled feathers.

3. Take advantage of customer initiated digital feedback.

When a customer is shopping or investigating a company’s product or service online, it’s customary for the company to initiate a pop-up or pop-under survey card requesting feedback from the customer on his or her online experience. Digital feedback management solutions offer a less intrusive way to gather customer feedback. A comment card on the website or mobile app can be displayed on screen for the customer to click at any time he or she needs help or has a comment. Rather than the ‘brand-initiated feedback’ gathered through online surveys, digital feedback management opens the door for ‘customer-initiated feedback’ through the digital channel.

I’m currently designing the form that my company will use to gather this kind of feedback from customers and prospects who visit our website, and we have clients who have already leveraged the technology with great results. We want to be able to identify issues that not only include website functionality, but go beyond that to gather feedback about interactions with our support team and specific requests for product information, exceeding what is available on the website.

This feedback can be programmed to automatically route to the appropriate departments, creating alerts within the organization so that customers willing to engage will be address in a timely manner. While we are just beginning to implement the solution, we are expecting it will identify issues earlier and help improve customer satisfaction—as well as enhance our brand as a nimble, responsive company that listens to our customers.

4. Use online communities as a listening tool.

We set up the first ‘CX Zone’ at our annual user conference in 2015. It gave our customers an opportunity to interact directly with CX professionals and refer to our customer journey map to make their points. The response was amazing and the CX Zone has since become a regular part of our conferences.

Customers provided direct, productive feedback on our performance, what they like about it, and what we could do better. Their desire to have open dialogue with us was so clear that it was the impetus for creating our online community, which today is an important vehicle for us to keep our fingers on the pulse of our customers, answer their questions and hear their concerns.

If you don’t have an online community, I highly recommend starting one. It’s a good way to keep a dialogue going year-round with your customers, not just once a year at the annual user conference.

5. Text analytics can help make sense of it all.

With the amount of written information we get from customers via social media, online communities, digital feedback management and other sources, it’s a monumental task to try to manage it all. Text analytics can take a huge amount of data from text and put it into a format that makes sense.

The text analytics system at my company automatically categorizes customer comments—whether they deal with support, implementation, etc.—and then highlights the positive and negative results for each category. Opening those reports is like opening a treasure chest. I always find something I can use to make our customer experiences better.

I use text analytics to make our surveys better, too. The tool can spot trends in the comments section of our surveys—trends that I can act on immediately, and use to make our surveys more relevant. Even better, text analytics can help you let your customers know you are really listening to them, and that their comments aren’t getting lost in mountains of data.

Tools for the ‘Digital First’ Age

One might argue that the customer survey has a stronger foothold today in B2B companies than B2C, and I’d probably agree with you. I work for a B2B company that still relies heavily on what customers tell us through surveys to build our strategies across departments—from product development to sales to customer service.

But for both kinds of companies–B2B and B2C–there is a wave of innovation that just keeps coming in terms of bold approaches to finding out what our customers think about us. Especially in today’s ‘Digital First’ age, they are proving their value as building blocks on top of the customer survey foundation for your CX strategies.

Nancy Porte
Nancy Porte is the Vice-Chair for the Board of Directors of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA). Previously, as Vice President of Global Customer Experience for Verint and with a background in operations management, her passion is developing differentiated customer experiences through cross-functional collaboration and employee engagement. She is a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP) and frequent speaker at industry conferences.


  1. Nancy, great article! I especially love the point about using online communities to learn about your customers. I’d love to hear more about this — perhaps in a future post. As I think about implementing a community, a couple concerns I’d have are:

    -Who owns the conversations within the organization?
    -Should I be concerned about customers talking too negatively about their experience?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Jeremy,

    Thanks for the comment! And I am planning a future article on the use of online communities for customer feedback and engagement! In the meantime, I’d like to answer your questions above.

    First, we have a lot of organizational owners for our community. Each forum/group is owned by an internal team – and, some of our most successful community groups are co-owned by internal teams and customers.

    Secondly, as part of planning for a community, the community manager should know how he/she will respond to different types of comments – even negative ones! In my experience, this is a rare occurrence. But when it happens, we don’t remove the comment (unless it is offensive or totally inappropriate for the topics discussed). One of two things will happen – either an internal expert will take the discussion offline – or other customer members will respond and neutralize the discussion!

    Hope that helps!

  3. Thank you, Nancy! This is great. I’m looking forward to reading more in your article on this topic.

  4. Great post, Nancy! It’s really important to listen to our customers if we want to improve our service. While going one-on-one might be difficult and time-consuming, I agree with Jeremy on creating online communities. It’s open to everyone and you can gather more feedback that way. Moderation concerns may come especially on negative comments, but setting some guidelines for moderators and users alike might help minimize it.


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