Using data to understand your customers

5 min read

04 October 2013

Real Business speaks to marketing veteran Jane Frost, head of the Market Research Society, about how SMEs can use evidence to strengthen sales.

In her own words, marketing veteran Jane Frost’s colourful career has taken her from “selling soap to the great unwashed to selling oil to the Saudis” as well as working for the BBC, HMRC and Department of Constitutional Affairs. 

Now the head of the Market Research Society, Frost says that evidence is an important way for businesses to get a grasp of the fundamentals issue of really understand what it is that your customer wants. Data is useful not just for increasing sales but also for securing finance. 

“Bank managers fundamentally want to know how strong is your case for the consumers wanting your product,” Frost says.

The business of evidence is garnering increasing attention as digital data collection has taken hold – Frost says that the industry is worth £3bn per year and is an important export product for the UK.

Market research can seem like a complicated and expensive avenue to go down for SMEs, but you don’t need complex computer software and a team of researchers to carry out useful observations. 

“First of all, if you’re in any environment with people, it’s an information gathering opportunity,” she says. “I don’t mean hassle people at dinner parties, but observation of how people do things, and respect for that, is a good starting place.”

Data is useful not just for increasing sales but also for securing finance. 

“Bank managers fundamentally want to know how strong is your case forthe consumers wanting your product,” Frost says.

There is also a wealth of free data available on the internet. From google to census results and think-tank research, it’s never been easier to find the kind of data you might need, without resorting to DIY.

If you need something a little more specific then online surveys and other software could do the trick. Frost says it might be worth paying a little for some basic help with asking the right questions.

“Just bunging something up on Survey Monkey could be as dangerous as not doing anything at all,” she says.

Asking the wrong question can produce bad data which is misleading. For instance it’s not enough to simply ask “Would you like this product/service/feature,” as many customers might say yes even though they wouldn’t be willing to part with extra cash for it, for instance. 

Ethical issues

Frost says that it’s critical to make sure that right from the beginning you collect data in a systematic and controlled manner. Otherwise you might not just damage its usefulness, but also fall foul of the law. 

“You have to understand that when you collect data, it’s not your data, it’s the customer’s data,” she says. 

For instance, disguising a lead generation as a survey (known as “sugging” would be inethical – you should be upfront about the reason for asking. This also means protecting data within your organisation – market research data should not be accessible by a sales team to use for leads. 

“It’s critical for businesses to get data collection right, right from the the beginning,” Frost adds. 

Dirty data

Data can sometimes be misleading, so it’s important to check the information you’re using isn’t “dirty”. 

“Just because you’ve got a load of people on your database doesn’t mean they are real,” Frost says. It’s easy for the same people to get counted twice and for others to be totally ignored – meaning your data will not be representative of the public at large. 

She adds: “Data is good when used right. But it doesn’t predict things, it only tells you what’s happening at the moment, it’s limited by the questions you ask of it and equally it’s going to cost a lot.” 

When it comes to analysing the data, Frost says that it’s better to analyse a thousand responses with a human than a million with a machine. 

“People are not numbers,” she adds.