4 Steps to developing a customer intelligence system

In business, we often focus on the competition or our bottom line, while assuming that we already know all we need to know about how our customers feel about our services or products. But, according to an article in Inc., two of the most common mistakes entrepreneurs make are:

  • Not connecting with customers by providing a product they love
  • Building too many features into their products or services instead of offering something that solves customer needs in the most simplified way

The article advises that, “Your customers should love your product. If not, then you have a real problem. You need to find out why. The only way you can do that is by really listening and responding to their needs.”  iStock_96757181_XXXLARGE.jpg

So how do super busy entrepreneurs and business owners carve out time to understand their customers better? It starts with developing an ongoing customer intelligence system designed specifically for their business.

A simple but strong system should include these four components:

  1. Mechanisms for customer-facing staff to obtain feedback and record it
  2. Regular evaluation of customer data
  3. Monthly or quarterly customer insights activities
  4. Annual evaluation of your customers’ needs and satisfaction level

This can be as basic or sophisticated as your budget and time allow – but leaders of successful organizations will tell you: put something in place.

Step 1: Front-line Feedback

To start a program, keep it simple at first. For front-line gathering of customer insights, consider ways customer-facing employees can ask key questions and record those answers. For example, a retailer may have its cashiers ask customers about which aspect of their store experience they enjoyed most and then quickly record each answer on a tablet. When it’s too busy to stop and ask each customer, then ask every fifth or tenth one. But don’t ask customers only when it is slow. Their experience could be very different from a customer visiting during a busy time.

If you have a small business where people stay for a while, like a restaurant or hair salon, consider asking patrons to complete a short survey (no more than a few questions) while they are waiting for service or when waiting on their credit card to process.

If you are in a service industry, such as financial services, health care or home remodeling, ask each client what they are most satisfied with or what could have been improved about their experience. As long as you keep it brief (1-2 questions), most people won’t feel the questions or a short feedback form are an imposition. You can vary the questions by customer or calendar if you want to gain insights on a larger set of questions.

If your business sells to other businesses, make sure your sales representatives, customer service staff, dealers or independent agents gather ongoing feedback from customers. The feedback obtained can be rolled into prospecting or sales/service call reports and then incorporated into product development or customer service initiatives.

Step 2: Back-end data

All businesses already collect some data on customer and prospect behaviors.  Examples include sales, service calls, merchandise returns, customer referrals, contract renewals, complaints, social media posts, review site comments, website traffic, email open rates, inbound phone calls, online contact forms, return appointments, conversions of proposals, and more.

It’s not enough to simply collect data. You must have a consistent method for analyzing and applying this information in a way that actually helps you create better products, improve service and boost sales.

Analyzing back-end data (called data analytics) is most helpful if you can link customer characteristics to the other data you collect. Then you can connect data about behaviors with customer demographics. Who should evaluate and interpret this data? Creating a strong customer intelligence system requires a good business software system to create automated reports. If you have someone on staff who has an analytics background, you can go beyond these standard reports for real insights.  Or you may want to consider hiring a consultant or firm to assist you with data analytics.  These specialists can help you get a system up and running for less than you might expect.

Step 3: Deeper customer insights

Truly knowing customers involves more than analyzing their behaviors and gathering quick front-line feedback. It also requires a deep understanding of their preferences, needs, and attitudes as well as the motivations driving their actions. Customer research activities that deliver this type of information are more time-intensive and therefore best conducted quarterly or monthly. You can start out small with your own staff and bring in outside research partners as your needs or resources grow.

Here are a few ideas for activities you can do yourself:

  • Enlist volunteers or pay a few people to act as secret shoppers at your business.
  • Set up 10 customer interviews and spend 30 to 45 minutes with each person. Take this time to dive into their needs in relation to your product or service. What is essential? What is nice but add-on? What isn’t needed? Find out what they like and don’t like about being your customer. What other products do they buy from competitors and why? Are there other products or services they would like to see your company offer? Consider giving them a small gift or credit for sharing their time and perspective.
  • If it’s affordable, purchase the product or service you sell from your competitors and evaluate their offering and their customer experience. You can also browse in your competitor’s brick-and-mortar store or website so you understand what other choices your customers have available to them.
  • If you have a customer loyalty program (online or phone app), send a short survey using a free survey tool. Include questions targeted at their current and future needs and their product preferences. If you don’t know the rules of good survey design, have someone who does check your questions.
  • If you have a key customer advisory board or council, hold quarterly virtual meetups or physical meetings where you explore their needs, have them talk about how they feel using your product or service, and generate their own ideas for improvements to your products or services.

Step 4: Annual or bi-annual evaluation of customer needs and satisfaction

It is also wise to gauge your customer satisfaction levels on an annual or bi-annual basis. We recommend doing this at the same time of year for more reliable trending of results. Choose the most convenient time of year for your customers to provide feedback. For seasonal businesses, it’s important to avoid their busiest months to obtain good participation and thoughtful responses.

If you have a limited budget, start with getting answers to these three questions:

  • Overall level of satisfaction
  • Likelihood to recommend you to others (if allowed to recommend)
  • Do they see your business as on the way up, maintaining near or at the top, or on the way down?

If you have the funds to bring in a professional research firm with advanced analysis capabilities, you’ll benefit from deeper insights. For instance, a professional market research firm will often uncover the drivers of customer satisfaction and provide segmentation analysis that reveals the different satisfaction issues among various groups or types of customers.


Knowing everything you can about your customers is the key to successful product innovation and highly satisfied customers who bring repeat business and referrals. Businesses that invest in a smart, effective customer intelligence system will always have the information they need to innovate, excel and grow.

At Vernon Research, we love discussing market research, no obligation. If you’d like specific ideas for your customer intelligence system, please get in touch.  Contact Linda Kuster at 319-364-7278 or lkuster@vernonresearch.com.