Understanding changing needs in times of crisis

By Linda Kuster | Guest Column

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the behaviors of customers in almost every industry and product/service category. While many of these changes are driven by short-term practices, such as social distancing, some of the effects may become permanent.

For instance, people who rarely cooked are spending more at the grocery store or trying meal preparation delivery services. Businesses experiencing supply chain issues are looking for new vendors or distribution channels. Nonprofits accustomed to helping clients and donors in person are training staff to engage virtually.

Reliable data and insights are critical now if you want to understand your customers’ and prospects’ changing needs and habits.

Research questions that could help right now include:

  • Are your customers engaging with new brands or whole new categories of products or services?
  • How are your brand perceptions changing?
  • What new problems are consumers or businesses encountering that you might help solve?
  • Are there emerging satisfaction issues with your product, the purchase 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 a business, you don’t want to appear insensitive to the difficulties of others. Transparency is therefore key. If you want to survey your customers to find out how their needs have changed, be upfront with your messaging: “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?”

Of course, there are situations when market research is probably best postponed. Now would not be the time to conduct research with health care professionals on the front lines of the crisis. It also would not make sense to conduct research on services like destination weddings and in-home cleaning services. An annual brand or satisfaction survey might be better conducted in a few months to get a true read on perceptions for comparison. On the other hand, now might be a great opportunity to engage with teachers, food service workers and others stuck at home. Response rates for online research are higher than usual right now, due to many people spending increased time on their devices.

It is also 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 any long-term plans based on short-term data collected at this time, but it could be invaluable in understanding and adjusting to current shifts in consumer patterns and feelings. Tracking data will also help you know if, and when, patterns and feelings return to normal.

If you have research you conduct on an ongoing basis (e.g., annual or monthly), 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 results by the level of impact.

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

  • Talk to 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’s accounts and those of your competitors’
  • Access data shared in your trade or industry associations, professional organizations, and 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 those 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 knowledge will help you continue to deliver on your organization’s mission. •

Linda Kuster is president at Vernon Research Group, based in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at (319) 364-7278, ext. 7104 or lkuster@vernonresearch.com.