One of the most powerful, yet under-utilized research techniques is talking to the frontline people who talk to your customers.
Salesmen, cashiers and receptionists can offer insights based on first-hand experience. They are eager to offer what they know, but seldom are asked.
This omission is odd because chatting with frontline workers is a cheap form of research. It costs 30 minutes and a cup of coffee.
Debriefing frontline workers isn't a substitue for more formal customer satisfaction surveys or consumer perception analysis, but it is a useful supplement that can put a face on statistics. Think of frontline worker conversations as a specialized focus group.
It makes sense to tap other frontline outposts, such as social media sites, for customer insights. Monitoring online conversations about your organization gives you a chance to address problems immediately, as well as to engage customers in a comfortable format.
Personal outreach works, too. Step out into the community where your business or nonprofit operates and strike up conversations with local residents and businesses. It won't take long before people open up about any concerns they have with your operation.
For some businesses, especially ones involved in operations people may fear or don't understand, it is a smart move to hold open houses. To the extent possible, you can show what you do, the products you make and the beneficial uses of those products. Make sure to serve coffee and cookies to ensure a friendly flow of feedback.
Informal research techniques such as talking to frontline workers, listening online and holding an open house have a solid track record of success. They combine fact-finding with engagement, which can lead to ongoing channels of two-way information-sharing.
All it takes is the will, a little time and a Starbucks card.