Customer Discovery: Surveying Early Customers

While interviewing customers is a preferred method for early customer discovery, there are many reasons to consider using a survey or questionnaire to solicit customer information about the problem, current solutions, and desired benefits. One of the significant benefits of online surveys is the ability to reach large numbers of customers in a relatively short time frame. However, designing surveys properly to solicit valid information from customers is challenging. The survey must ask questions that are context-specific and unambiguous. To create a survey that meets these criteria, you need to have interviewed several customers to learn the context and the language they use to discuss their experience or use a third party with substantial experience with the specific customer base. 


I suggest that you follow the question protocol similar to the more semi-structured, open-ended customer discovery interview. Start with a general introduction that explains who you are (student, researcher), what problem you are investigating (purpose), and how long the survey should take (5-10 minutes recommended). I usually thank them for completing the survey upfront and in advance.


After the survey introduction, you should design your questions to solicit information about the customer’s experience with the problem, specific challenges, application of current solutions, and desired outcomes. As noted, you can follow a similar script as you use in an interview, except the questions are now designed to solicit quantifiable responses. See the table below for some examples.

Converting Open Ended Interview Questions to Survey Items

Customer Survey Questions

The first set of survey questions should help validate that the respondent is part of your target market. Questions may include specific demographic data such as age, gender, level of education, location, etc. You only need to focus on particular customer profile elements that are an essential part of how you have segmented your customer base. One noteworthy of mentioning is that sometimes you may need to ask sensitive questions. Questions about income or specific health conditions fall in this category. In this situation, you may want to place these questions towards the end of the survey. Additionally, provide a “prefer not to say” response. 


After collecting the required demographic data, move to the questions designed to validate your assumptions about the customer problem, the challenges they experience, which solutions they have tried recently, and what behavioral or emotional outcome they would like to achieve from an efficacious solution. Designing these questions can be quite challenging. You are taking your initial assumptions and creating a way for the customer to respond in a quantifiable form. For example, in a customer discovery interview, you have the customer tell you about the last time they experienced a specific situation or job-to-be-done. You ask this in a very open-ended manner so you would solicit a direct, unbiased response from your customer. When you structure a survey question, you are now listing specific actions, behaviors, and emotions occurring during the problem to be solved or the job- to- be- done. In effect, you anticipate specific optional responses and hope to learn about those selected the most within your customer sample. Selecting the appropriate response options is vital and is ascertained during customer interviews. After several interviews, you will better understand the types of actions, behaviors, or emotions that the customer experiences. Importantly, you will have learned how the customer describes these experiences in their language. This way, the survey questions will be more understandable to the customer respondent, making the survey responses more reliable and valid.


After you have asked a few questions on the customers’ experience with the problem and specific challenges reported, you can focus on what solutions they have used to solve the problem at hand. Learning what solutions they have tried is an invaluable source of information. You will identify alternative solutions in the market, whether they be direct competitive solutions (similar to your product idea) or indirect options that solve the problem differently. Again, through interviews and market research, you should have a sense of the solutions out in the market and list them to see which ones the customer uses the most. Of course, as in many of these types of questions, you can add the “Other” option to learn about other solutions that are not on your radar. Through questions about optional solutions, you can learn who your competitors are, where these solutions are underperforming, and often, how much the customer is paying for these solutions. Thus, you now understand how proactively they have pursued solutions and how much they have historically paid for such outcomes.


The last series of questions can provide beneficial information for your venture. The first question is to ask the customer how they heard about the survey.? Here, you should provide all the channels you used to solicit customer respondents. Your listing should be particular and align with the methods you used. For example, if you use certain social media, list them individually— – Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. Information about which channels resulted in strong response rates is critically important data. This information can be seen as early historical data about your sales funnel. What are some of the best ways to create awareness and potentially quality leads for your venture? By responding, you know you reached them and that the customer was interested enough to take action and – complete your survey.


The other question that complements the channel question is asking whether the customer is interested in staying in touch with you. By checking “Yes” or leaving their email, they communicate their interest in solving the problem. Validating their interest in conjunction with how they learned of the survey now gives you some early conversion data by promotional channel. For most new ventures, this is the first time you discover this kind of information, which will play an essential role in customer acquisition strategies later on in the venture realization process.


A final question that can help expand your list of potential respondents is to ask the customer to recommend someone dealing with the same problem. While this question may not always be appropriate in specific problem areas, it can help expand your respondents’ pool. Even if you ask them to send the survey link to people in their network, this can significantly enhance your response rates. Sometimes, you can provide incentives for such referrals, such as educational content on the problem at hand in the form of a free PDF.

Testing the Survey

As with customer discovery interviews, it helps conduct an initial trial run survey with several target customers— – friends or colleagues are good sources to check for question clarity and language use. You are looking to make sure that the questions are clear, answerable, and unbiased. Question clarity comes from statements that use precise language using vocabulary that your customers will understand. Avoid questions asking more than one question – you won’t know which question that respondent answered. The order of questions and answers can influence how the customer thinks about the topic and the subsequent response. There are several approaches to avoid biasing questions, including randomizing the response choices for particular queries. This issue arises when your assumptions are part of a list of response options. For example, if you anticipate that your target customers already use specific competitor products, you will want to embed these product choices randomly among other optional responses.


It is vital to get your survey in the best shape possible before you start to expand your sample size. Don’t be afraid to send out several iterations to small numbers of target customers and reflect on the responses until you are sure that the survey meets all the critical criteria as noted above. Once you are ready, then you are going to look for a large number of respondents. 


Unlike interviews, surveys provide the opportunity to reach a much broader customer base and sample size matters. The larger the sample of respondents, the more you can have faith in the information gathered. Again, there will be differences in the number of respondents you acquire in Business-to-Customer (B2C) versus Business to Business (B2B). While there are many ways to think about the target number, I suggest that your goal should be at least ten times more respondents than interviews. If you initially interviewed 50 consumers (B2C), consider 500 survey respondents as a worthy goal.

Documenting Customer Survey Findings 

Note that it is good to consider how you plan to analyze the data before designing the survey. Think about both the method of analysis and how to show the findings to others best. Deciding how to visualize optimally and display survey data will help you design the questions in the best way to produce said informational outcomes. 


In general, you look to demonstrate results and validate assumptions in three areas. Were you able to validate that the interviewees were part of the targeted customer segment – the beachhead? Here you can consider if any changes are necessary to your initial segmentation and other segments worth exploring. Additionally, you should evaluate how the various channels are working in reaching your segment? Keep the ones that bring many validated customer segment respondents and test new access channels as needed.

The second finding area to document is how your assumptions about the customers’ experience with the problem and its severity align with what you learn from survey responses. What have you learned about the customers’ experience with the problem you are hoping to solve, what challenges stand out, and how anxious are they to solve the problem?
Finally, you are looking to see if your target customers actively search for solutions and which ones they have experienced. You will learn how these solutions are working and what they are missing, essential for you to determine before you start designing your solution. Most importantly, you will better understand what the customer is looking for in an effective solution and the most desired outcomes.

Next Up

The next post will look at the importance of finding a carefully defined market that focuses on a specific target customer as a launching pad for your startup.

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