3 Ways to figure out what your customers want—so you can deliver it

Last Update: 10 Sep 2021

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David Darmanin, CEO of the highly profitable, self-funded SaaS company known as Hotjar, “failed miserably” at his first two startups—and those are his words, not mine.

In a series of blog posts where Darmanin tells the story of Hotjar’s struggles (and its ultimate rise to $25 million in Annual Recurring Revenue), he briefly mentions why his first two startups failed. Simply put, he and his team tried to build the perfect product before entering the market, only to discover that it wasn’t exactly what customers really wanted.

When he founded Hotjar, he chose to adopt the Minimum Viable Product model, where they introduced a simple product to the market. Next, they allowed customer feedback to inform them about which features to add to the product in subsequent versions. Their success explains why it’s absolutely vital to listen to your customers and let their feedback drive your product development.

How do you figure out what your customers want? Well, you’ve got to ask them… so here are five ways to gather Voice-of-the-Customer (VoC) data that can drive your product development and your ultimate success.

1.   Customer interviews

Did you think we were going to rush into metrics and hard data?

Don’t worry, that’s coming (see Tip #3). Hard data is vital, but there’s tremendous value in gathering qualitative data as well. In particular, the open-ended nature of a customer interview allows you to stumble across customer challenges, drives, and solutions that you would never uncover in a survey.

Sure, the data you receive from interviews is anecdotal. In other words, you’re not going to make massive changes to your product based on something you learn in a series of interviews with a small number of people. Instead, think of it like the “hypothesis” phase of the scientific method—this is where you come up with educated guesses about how to improve your product. Then you can test those ideas out later, with surveys, to draw scientifically valid conclusions.

What should you ask in customer interviews?

Rather than asking a series of set questions that you never deviate from, instead try to get your customers to talk freely about:

  • What drove them to seek out a product like yours
  • What do they like about your product (or similar products on the market if you haven’t built yours yet)
  • What you (or your competitors) could do to improve

The idea is to get them talking, and you may need to probe a little deeper after you get your initial response. Reassure them that you’re not just looking for praise—you really want to build a superior product and you need their input.

The great thing about these conversations is that, because they’re more involved than a survey, they can produce far more in-depth answers. You can then take that information and design survey questions around them. For example, if someone finds your pricing page confusing, you can survey other customers to determine whether this is a common issue that you need to address.

What about focus groups?

A more formal, in-depth way to gather this sort of information is by hiring a marketing company to run focus groups, where a professional leads a structured discussion with a representative sample of your target market.

Focus groups can provide great information, but a service like this is probably out of your budget if your business is in the startup phase. Instead, the goal right now is to get some solid intel and learn to empathize with your customers. Interviews go a long way toward accomplishing that.

2.   Study customer reviews + Customer Support (CS) data

If you already have an established business and you collect customer reviews, then you’ve got direct, qualitative feedback with clear ideas for improvement. If not? Don’t fret! Instead, you can study reviews of similar products or services online to get a real sense of what potential customers want.

Potential places to find customer reviews are Amazon (if you’re selling physical products), app stores (if you’re selling an app), and third-party review sites. You can dive into those reviews and scan the data, taking note of general themes and recurring complaints. You can also use data scraping devices to pull the data and dump it into a spreadsheet for deeper analysis.

Similarly, if you’ve already got a working product, you can take a look at Customer Support (CS) tickets. These can provide a treasure trove of customer feedback and give you an idea of what you’ll need to improve to win more loyal customers.

Again, as with customer interviews, you’re still gathering anecdotes at this stage—this isn’t hard data yet. You can take a more scientific approach later by crafting survey questions that probe deeper into the themes you discover from review mining.

3.   Customer surveys

Here’s where we get scientific in our approach to gathering data. Customer surveys will give you an idea of what your customers, in aggregate,  want from your products. That way, you’re not running around tailoring your offerings based on opinions that most of your customers don’t share.

The trick is to get a large enough sample size so you can determine what your best customers want and tailor your products and your marketing efforts to meet their needs.

What kind of questions should you ask?

The possibilities are vast, but customer attention is limited—so try to limit the number of questions to two or three, and target your most pressing concerns. With this in mind, draw from what you learned from your interviews, reviews, and CS data (if it exists). For example, if you run an e-commerce company and people complain about your search feature, you can include an on-page survey that asks, “Are you able to find what you need using our search tool? Yes/No.”

Now, even though we’re looking for solid metrics here, it’s almost always a good idea to follow up with an open-ended question, where customers can explain their answers. For example, if you ask “Is our pricing page easy to understand? Yes/No,” and someone responds “No,” you should definitely follow up with an open-ended question asking them what they found confusing. You can use this information to test out different designs, marketing copy, or possibly even a different pricing model).

Popular metrics to track

Some of the most popular metrics to track include the following.

Net Promoter Score (NPS): This metric asks customers to report how likely they are to recommend your product or service to a friend on a scale of 0-10, and it asks customers to explain the reasoning behind their answer. You can use this data to track your customers’ perception of your brand and discover opportunities for improvement.

Of course, there’s quite a bit more to NPS, so check out our in-depth discussion of the Net Promoter Score  and learn why it’s considered the greatest predictor of growth out of all the metrics currently used in business today.

Customer Effort Score (CES): CES measures how hard customers have to work to accomplish something related to using your products (e.g., onboarding, making a purchase). Usually, CES surveys ask customers to rate their effort on a scale of 1-5.

According to the Harvard Business Review, it’s actually far more important to reduce customer effort than it is to delight them. Why? Studies indicate that if your customers have to expend too much effort to use your products, they’ll simply jump ship and use one of your competitors.


Read our post about the Customer Effort Score  to dive into the details of this metric.

Customer Satisfaction (CSAT): CSAT is usually a binary measurement (thumbs up/thumbs down, happy face/sad face) to determine how customers are feeling about their experience at various points in the customer journey. CSAT is great for flagging issues, and you should always follow a negative response with an open-ended question, asking what’s wrong and how you can fix it.

For example, if your CSAT scores suddenly drop on your checkout page, you’ll know something is wrong. And if it shows consistently mediocre rankings? You know there’s room for improvement.

Product Satisfaction (PSAT): A close cousin to CSAT, the PSAT metric helps you assess product satisfaction—usually used by software companies. PSAT surveys usually appear in-app, meaning they pop up while someone is using the software product, and they ask the user to rate (say, on a 1-5 scale) how much they like your product. Be sure to follow up with an open-end question, asking why they gave that particular rating.

Where and how to ask survey questions

You can ask survey questions in a number of different places, in a variety of formats. What’s important is to tailor the time, place, and method to the data you’re trying to collect.

For example, if you’ve got a complex SaaS product and it takes weeks to onboard new customers, you don’t want to give them an NPS question on day one. Instead, you can trigger the system to collect that data once they’ve had a chance to try the product, and you can send the question via email or within the app.

With this in mind, here are some common delivery methods for your surveys:

  • On-page surveys that slide up inconspicuously from the bottom of the screen
  • Email surveys that give people time to consider their response
  • In-app surveys for software products

You can also conduct surveys by phone or snail mail if you invent a time machine and travel back to 1995.

Understanding your customers is a work in progress

As you can see, understanding what your customers (and the market in general) want is as much an art as it is a science. When you start out, you’ll struggle to ask the right questions—those that give you actionable data and help you improve the customer experience.

Over time, however, you’ll get better at it. And through A/B testing, you can use what you learn to build better products, improve your messaging, and win more loyal customers. It’s a never-ending process, since your competitors are always innovating. With diligent effort, however, you can stay ahead of the curve and eventually dominate your marketplace.