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A Step-by-Step Guide to Performing Customer Experience Research

A Step-by-Step Guide to Performing Customer Experience Research

A five-step process for translating broad feedback into meaningful changes to transform your company.

You know customer experience research is important. If you can successfully translate feedback into specific solutions, your customers will be happier (improving retention and referrals), and you might even reduce your operating costs (think fewer customer service staff needed, etc.).

But thorough CX research requires patience to execute and will lead your entire team on a wild goose chase if you go down the wrong path. 

The main reason CX research is so difficult is that it’s impossible to draw a straight line from standard CX metrics⁠—like Net Promoter Score (NPS) and Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT)—to specific action items. For example, NPS is measured by asking customers one question: “How likely are you to recommend this product or service to a friend?” If you get  enough negative responses, you know that something needs to change, but you have no context for how and why.

To be successful with CX research, you have to chart a course from broad metrics to specific action items. You do that by breaking the customer experience down into manageable customer journeys, interviewing customers to uncover pain points within the journey, then setting up a real-time feedback system to help measure your progress as you try to improve. 

In this guide, we’ll review a five-step process to help you translate broad feedback into meaningful, specific changes that have the potential to transform your company. You’ll learn how to: 

  • Set goals that will keep your team focused on the right questions and customer interactions.
  • Identify the most important customer journeys at your company.
  • Create an accurate map of each journey and identify areas for improvement based on real customer feedback. 
  • Set up a quantitative measuring system to keep track of your performance at the most important customer touchpoints, in real time. 
  • Ideate, create, and test experience improvements that will move the needle at your organization. 
(1) Define Goals and Metrics (2) Identify Customer Journeys (3) Create Journey Maps (4) Set Up Measurement System (5) Ideate, Create, and Test.

Note: Need an easy way to manage customer interviews for CX research? Use Research Hub to organize and streamline outreach and schedule interviews. And if you need to find new users to interview, use our Recruit platform to find and manage participants in the U.S., Canada, and abroad.

1. Define Your Company Goals 

Customer experience research affects the entire company, so for it to be truly impactful, it requires buy-in at the highest levels of the organization to be done correctly. This means getting the executive team involved. 

Start by outlining a top-level metric to use as a north star during research. It doesn’t particularly matter which CX metric you use, so long as it illustrates a customer’s overall disposition towards your brand. NPS and CSAT are two common examples that work well.  

The metric you choose should also be flexible enough to work at multiple levels of granularity and in multiple formats. For example, you can apply CSAT to answer a broad question that relates to your entire company, such as, “How satisfied are customers with our company-wide customer experience?” One part of answering this question could include an email survey sent to a random cross-section of customers. 

You can also use CSAT to analyze specific interactions⁠—for example, a customer service chat. This is a much more specific step in your company experience, and would require a different feedback mechanism to gather information. For example, you could use a quick survey in the chat window after the conversation is finished. 

2. Identify Valuable Customer Journeys

Once you have clearly stated a CX strategy with goals and metrics, you can use them to identify your most valuable customer journeys. The point of this step is to take the broad “customer experience” and break it down into smaller, more manageable units your team can improve. 

For example, if your business goal is customer acquisition, you would focus on a journey that’s relevant for first time customers. Switching insurance providers is one relevant example of a journey that could lead to acquisition in the insurance sector. On the other hand, customer engagement on social media might not make the top of your list.

Notice that “switching insurance providers” really focuses on one specific type of customer acquisition method. Being as specific as possible will help you be more accurate when creating solutions for CX improvement. Continuing with the example, someone who’s switching insurance providers will have different needs than someone who’s buying insurance for the first time.

Spend some time brainstorming as many customer journeys as you can that map back to your top-level business goal. For companies with many products and services, that could include dozens; other businesses might only come up with one or two. 

When you’re done, select one customer journey to work on. Customer journeys can only be optimized for a single goal, so this is where you decide which one to focus on. 

Ideally, you’d pick a single journey that would have the most impact on your business. Unfortunately, this often isn’t a clear choice. For example, insurance companies typically offer multiple types of insurance, each with multiple relevant customer journeys. Which is the right one to focus on? 

Ultimately making the right decision requires a focused business strategy. Is it best for your business to focus on home, auto, or multi-line insurance policies? Do you want to focus on retention or acquisition (or something else entirely)? 

Making these decisions goes beyond the scope of improving your customer experience. That’s why you involve business leadership to help you define where to focus. Work with them to define a single customer journey—you can always adjust and iterate if necessary. 

Optimize for Journeys, Not Touchpoints

As you break down the customer experience into smaller parts, remember to think in terms of journeys, not just touchpoints. For example, “onboarding new customers” is a touchpoint, as is “calling support.” Customer journeys:

  • include many touchpoints.
  • end when a specific goal is accomplished.
  • and are framed in terms of the customer’s life.

A few examples of customer journeys could include, “Add a new driver to my policy,” or “Buy ingredients for dinner,” or “Unfreeze my bank account.”

Customer Experience, Customer Journey, Customer Touchpoints
  • Customer Experience: Made of many customer journeys. Lasts the entire time a customer is engaged with your company.
  • Customer Journey: Made of many customer touchpoints. Framed in terms of a specific customer goal with a distinct beginning and end. Where you’ll focus your efforts in CX research. 
  • Customer Touchpoints: A single interaction between your customer and your company. Can include one step or multiple, but only helps the user through part of their customer journey. 

For example, an accounting app company could create software for many applications, including taxes, and invoicing. The customer experience spans the entirety of a single’s customer’s interactions across all services for as long as they use the app. A customer journey could be “find a new invoicing app.” This journey would span multiple touchpoints, including onboarding. Onboarding is a touchpoint because it includes multiple steps, but isn't comprehensive enough to help the user reach their goal. 

Focusing on journeys helps you avoid the common tendency to over-optimize specific touchpoints. The danger in doing so is that you may fail to improve the overall customer experience. For example, if you look at customer satisfaction ratings for a contact center, you might find that your reps are performing exceptionally well. They generally have a pleasant demeanor, customers find them helpful, and calls are resolved on the first try. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.  

When viewed in the context of the entire customer journey, you might find that you’re fielding more inquiries than necessary in your contact center. Perhaps your customers often try your mobile app first, but it doesn’t provide the necessary information. Then calling support is the second option. The need to check multiple resources results in a bad experience. In this case, the contextual info points to needed app improvements, not a clean bill of health that's simply based on call ratings. 

3. Map Existing Customer Journeys

Conducting Customer Experience Research

Once you’ve identified the most important customer journeys, you can start to map them out across your organization. Ideally, you’d perform this step with the help of a colleague from each department that your customers touch during their journey. No single department in your company will be the single source of truth when it comes to your customers, so it’s better to gather information from as many sources as possible. (If you’re not sure where to start, check out our stakeholder interviews guide).

Once you’ve gathered data and a team you’re ready to create two key deliverables: a persona and a customer journey map. Don’t worry about getting them perfect the first try; you’ll flesh them out as you do more research.

  • Personas are a semi-fictional representation of your best customers that are used to help build empathy when performing customer research. These roughly correlate with your customer segments but add details such as a name, occupation, and customer goals. You’ll use the persona to set the stage for your customer journey and use it as a reference if you’re curious how a customer would react to a specific situation. Learn more about persona creation in our UX research guide.
  • Customer journey maps are a graphical representation of the path your customer takes to accomplish a user goal. This could mean unfreezing a bank account, or adding a new driver to an insurance policy. Most customer journey maps are based on a persona, and include the customer’s actions, thoughts, and emotions, as well as space to write down opportunities for improvement. To learn more about how to create a customer journey map, check out this guide from Nielsen Norman Group
24 journey mapping tools reviewed in our ultimate guide.

At the end of your journey mapping exercise, you should have a tentative map of the steps your customer takes to achieve their goal within your company. If this is your first time creating a journey map for this specific scenario, don’t be surprised if you find gaps in your map where you don’t have customer data or feedback. This is normal and will be filled with qualitative info from customer research, along with quantitative information from the feedback measurement system you’ll create in step four. 

With a tentative map and personas in place, it’s time to talk to actual users about their experiences and frustrations. You can uncover this information in many ways, but qualitative research is the best place to start. A few qualitative methods useful at this stage include: 

  • Ethnographic Interviews: Go to the customer’s natural environment and watch them work through a problem. Then follow up with questions in an interview. One example would be walking through an airport with a customer to see how they navigate. Learn more about ethnography in user research.
  • Direct Observation: This is similar to ethnographic interviews, minus the interview. You go to the customer and watch them work through a problem, without any follow-up questions at the end. Learn more about field studies in user research.
  • Diary Studies: Diary studies involve asking customers to track their thoughts over time as they work through a problem. This tool is better suited for customers who interact with a company frequently. You simply provide a daily prompt, and the user answers it regularly for the duration of the test. Learn more about diary studies in user research.
  • Contextual Inquiry: This combines an interview and observation at the same time. Typically it starts by asking the customer a few questions about a problem then transitions into observing the customer as they work, with breaks for questions as needed. Learn how Slack uses remote contextual inquiry for its research.
  • Customer Interviews: Arguably the most popular of all qualitative research methods, the customer interview is a qualitative research standby that simply works. It involves asking customers a series of open-ended questions about a specific goal or topic of interest. Typically, customer interviews are meant to feel more like a conversation than an interview and give you the opportunity to uncover insights without the inconvenience of in-person observations or ongoing diary tracking.

Use these methods to dig into the problems your customers experience, where you do and don’t meet customer expectations, and what customer needs are left unmet.

Try the #1 rated tool to find customers for interviews today.

4. Create a Customer Experience Measurement System 

Customer Experience Research

Once you have a few areas for improvement in mind but before you’ve implemented them, put a real-time measurement system in place. This system is critical for any customer experience strategy because it will provide a baseline for current customer satisfaction and let you know how well your solutions are performing. 

According to McKinsey, two of the most important characteristics of your customer feedback measurement system are that it:

  1. Provides feedback in real time
  2. Shows a map of the feedback in a digestible digital format

Ideally it’s also automated, and it must map back to the top-level, quantitative metrics you established in step one. 

Typically, this kind of system is part of a Voice of Customer (VoC) platform. You can create a makeshift VoC system yourself by piecing together surveys and other feedback mechanisms with a central dashboard. But doing so can get complicated, fast. 

True VoC software will accept data from many sources and is custom built to present large amounts of data in a digestible format. Some software will even include a big data analysis feature that can process enterprise levels of information. These kinds of tools aren’t cheap and often have a steep learning curve, but they’re necessary for large-scale analysis.  

For other options, read our guide to ongoing listening methods. You can look at data like overall customer retention, survey feedback, website analytics, product analytics, social media mentions, and more.

Whichever solution you choose, make sure to set up data collection points at each step of the customer journey. Depending on your organization, you may have to use a mixture of physical and digital touchpoints. Physical touchpoints can get tricky to measure, so you may have to get creative. 

For example, some international airports now have dedicated feedback stations right after customs. You just walk up to a podium with a touchscreen on top and press a smiley face emoji to indicate what you thought of your experience. A podium like this isn’t the perfect way to collect data because it’s easy for customers in a hurry to ignore them, and customers who have a poor experience are more likely to stop and provide feedback. But even if your measurement system isn’t perfect, it’s important to get started. You can iterate on your measurement system, just like every other part of the research process. 

Also, make sure the data you ask for matches up to the metrics you defined in the first step. For example, if you selected NPS as your overarching metric, you can simply ask for an NPS after each step in the journey. If “customer satisfaction” were the selected indicator, just ask “How satisfied were you with your experience?” 

5. Ideate, Create, and Iterate 

After you’ve set up your measurement system and created your journey map, you’re ready to ideate CX improvements. Make sure to involve all stakeholders again, so you can come up with an organization-wide campaign for change. 

As you start to build solutions, make sure to talk to customers often and get feedback along the way. Qualitative feedback is especially helpful if you’re rolling out a beta program or creating a prototype version of a final solution. When you talk with the users face to face or via video, you can add context and talk through details that would otherwise get lost. 

Note: Don’t just talk to unhappy customers. Talk to customers who thought you provided a superior customer experience, too. They both have valuable insights to share with you about what you got wrong and what you got right.

Depending on the size of your CX improvements, you may have to test prototypes and get customer feedback several times before landing on a winner. Even when you do find a winner, you’re never done improving the customer experience. You can always iterate and refine over time to maintain a competitive edge and figure out how to serve customers better. 

Note that as you’re iterating, you should test your solution using the minimum viable product or service before going all-in and committing to a change. This could mean creating a barebones physical prototype to test, or using a new service modality or script with a small set of support specialists to gauge response. Testing with a basic product or service will help you make sure you’re on the right track so you know your resources are going to good use.

Finally, be careful not to jump into creating solutions too quickly when you encounter a problem. It can be tempting to see an issue at a specific touchpoint and want to immediately provide a better customer experience. But as we discussed previously, a customer journey is an interconnected system, with one part affecting many others. A warning signal or sign of dissatisfaction at one step in the process could signal trouble somewhere else. Take the time to consider each problem in the greater context of the customer journey before taking action. 

Recapping the five steps

Let’s do a quick recap of the five-step process we covered in this article for performing helpful customer research: 

  1. Set goals that will keep your team focused on the right questions and customer interactions. Include both customer experience metrics and business goals that you can track throughout the process. 
  1. Identify the most important customer journeys at your company. Important customer journeys are informed by your business goals. 
  1. Create an accurate map of each journey and identify areas for improvement based on real customer feedback. Perform qualitative research, such as customer interviews, to make your maps as accurate as possible. 
  1. Set up a quantitative measuring system to keep track of your performance at the most important customer touchpoints, in real time. The quantitative measuring system should map back to your top-level CX metric and provide real-time feedback at each step of the journey. 
  1. Ideate, create, and test experience improvements that will move the needle at your organization. Carefully consider your challenge before jumping to a solution, and remember that improvement is an ongoing process. 

Along the way, remember that this kind of transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It takes  several months to transition to a customer-centric organization for even the most progressive and forward-thinking companies. Organizations that are slower to adapt can even take years. 

In the end, it will be worth it though, as investing in good CX has been shown to improve customer and employee satisfaction (thereby improving customer loyalty) while significantly reducing customer service cost and increasing revenue. Even the difference between a good customer experience and a great customer experience can be the competitive advantage you’ve been looking for.

Use Research Hub to organize and streamline outreach and schedule interviews with your customers.
Josh Piepmeier

Josh is a conversion-focused content writer and strategist based in New York. When not reading or writing, you can find him exploring his home state, visiting new cities, or unwinding at a family barbecue.

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