Researching buyer needs during a crisis

The current COVID 19 virus pandemic has altered the living, working, and buying behaviors of customers in almost every industry and product/service category. While many of these changes are driven by business closures, social distancing, and other, hopefully, short-term practices, some of the effects may become permanent.

Market research in changing times


People who rarely cooked are spending more at the grocery store or trying fresh meal preparation delivery services. Businesses experiencing supply chain issues are looking for new suppliers. Non-profits accustomed to helping clients and meeting with donors in person are training staff to engage virtually.

While this is a challenging time, we can also benefit by staying current with evolving needs and looking for ways to pivot our business or leverage new opportunities. Reliable data and insights are critical right now if you want to understand your customers’ or stakeholders’ evolving needs. It will not only help them, it will also potentially strengthen brand loyalty.


Research questions that could help you right now might explore these areas:

  • Are your customers engaging with new brands within your category or meeting their needs with a new category of products or services?
  • How are perceptions of your brand changing?
  • What new problems are consumers or businesses encountering that your product or service might help solve?
  • Are there emerging satisfaction issues with your product or service, buying process, or delivery channels?
  • Are product selection criteria changing?
  • Are preferred media or information channels changing?

It is also important to acknowledge that these can be awkward times. As businesses, we need to keep operating to survive but we don’t want to appear insensitive to the difficulties others are experiencing. How best to balance this? Transparency is key. For example, if you want to survey your customers to find out how their needs have changed, be upfront and say something like, “We want to be sure we are meeting your needs during this challenging time.  Can you answer a few questions to help us do that?”

Additionally, there are situations when market research is probably best postponed. Now would not be a good time to conduct research with health professionals at the front lines of the current health crisis. It also would not make sense to conduct research on services such as destination weddings or in-home cleaning services.  On the other hand, now might be a great opportunity to engage with teachers, food service workers, professionals who work in the beauty industry, and others who may have more time and interest. If this is the time you conduct an annual brand or customer satisfaction survey, however, it might be wise to postpone it a few months so you obtain a truer read on perceptions for comparison.

Methods in Uncertain Times

The current environment is obviously affecting how you can conduct market research. In-person focus groups, interviews, in-home observations, and in-store intercepts are off the table for now. Most of those, however, can still be conducted online, if appropriate.  Response rates for online research are currently higher than usual due to many people spending increased time on their devices and at home.

Consumers responding to online surveys at greater rates

It is important to consider how the current environment will impact the reliability of research results. Opinions expressed during this type of crisis may be more extreme than in other times, especially as they relate to discretionary spending, health, safety, and related topics. You would likely not want to make long-term plans based on short-term data you collect at this time, but data collected now could be invaluable in understanding and adjusting to current shifts in consumer/buyer behaviors and feelings. Tracking data will also help you know if, and when, patterns and attitudes return to their prior state.

If you have research you conduct on an ongoing basis (e.g., annual or monthly), you should keep any trending results in context with the current crisis.  Adding a demographic question that asks about how concerned or disrupted your customer is by COVID 19 will also enable you to segment research results by the level of impact.

Think about what adjustments might be needed in your current methods of gaining data. This could be a smart time to do a deep dive on customer ordering patterns. If you have switched to mostly delivery service from an in-store purchase model, consider sending short satisfaction surveys to customers right after delivery to stay on top of any issues that may emerge with your new processes.

Insights for Zero Budgets

If you don’t have funds for professional market research right now, there are still many ways you can execute it yourself or leverage data available online:

  • Talk to some of your customers by phone or online
  • Track trends in customer support calls and emails
  • Analyze ongoing sales data
  • Monitor social media comments on your business accounts and those of your competitors
  • Access data shared in your trade or industry associations, professional organizations, or published by large research/polling companies

Research has shown that organizations that continue to invest in marketing during difficult economic times fare better in the long-term than companies and organizations that do not. I believe the same is true for market research.  Whether we go back to normal or learn there is a new normal, market research will help us understand when it happens and what it looks like.  That is the kind of knowledge that will help you continue to deliver on your organization’s mission despite changing times.

We are always happy to share our knowledge and recommendations with you, no obligation.  Be well.