COVID-19: How market research can help start-ups and SMEs

The knock-on effect of the coronavirus crisis has been huge for owners of start-ups and smaller businesses. Alongside forcing temporary closure and staff lay-offs, latest figures from British Chamber of Commerce indicate that almost a fifth (19%) of UK small businesses are planning to use government support schemes as cash reserves run dry.

Yet the crisis has also created some runaway winners, with tech start-ups and SMEs providing apps for remote working and meetings, health and fitness, food delivery and medical diagnosis seeing a huge surge in volumes.

Whether experiencing off-the-chart growth or struggling, here are some ways we believe customer and employee research can help smaller companies navigate uncertainty by mapping and meeting customer needs and building business resilience, putting them in a stronger  position now and post COVID-19.

  • Securing Investment – Global investors and lenders are putting the brakes on and becoming more selective about the start-ups and SMEs they back. Market research will help build a solid business case. Developing a compelling business plan with data-based evidence of customer demand and perceptions – especially as these are likely to have altered during the coronavirus outbreak – will demonstrate the extent an idea is still viable and its growth potential.
  • Re-modelling Business Plans – Start-up and SME business plans are being shaken up drastically as companies quickly downsize (and upsize) and re-think approach strategies. The coronavirus has up-ended businesses across all sectors, but particularly hard hit are tourism, events, and clothing retail industries. Businesses are thinking creatively, taking offerings online and diversifying. Dedicated market research will help confirm unknowns, including market size (how it’s contracted or expanded), how the customer base has changed, and how customer expectations have shifted.
  • Strategic Direction – For start-ups and SMEs whose model has been disrupted, for example, switching a physical offering to selling online, customer research will isolate what online initiatives are successful during the crisis, and whether demand for digital services will continue apace post lockdown. Anticipating and understanding customers future buying behaviour will help inform key decisions, such as whether to double-down on ecommerce efforts, upskill staff in different areas, or shift focus elsewhere.
  • Concept Assurance – The crisis is seeing a raft of coronavirus-related apps and products being fast-tracked for funding. From product testing research to collect information about customer take-up (now and post lockdown) and customer segments to target, through to remote focus groups to test customer reaction and competitor analysis to pinpoint where to differentiate to get ahead, solid market research will provide valuable insight to launch projects from the strongest position.
  • Building Customer-centricity – Seismic shifts are occurring in customer service as businesses think on their feet and innovate ways of meeting customers’ needs. The most visible for many of us is food and grocery, with supermarkets rapidly adapting in-store processes to meet social distancing rules and expanding remote delivery services. They’re also sharpening their messaging, communicating brand values and reaching out to show how their supporting customers and employees. For start-ups and SMEs, who don’t have the reserves and hive mind of big businesses to call upon, services/products and core messages pushed out at this time to customers can mean make-or-break. Consumer research – even on a small scale such as a well-written customer survey or social media analysis – will help identify customers wants and needs, what a company is doing well and target areas to improve. Keeping customer interest and engagement high – by fulfilling consumer needs and connecting with them – will help cement relationships, putting businesses in a stronger position to ride out the crisis.
  • Improving Employee Experience – Shifts in work patterns, people working from home and reduced (or increased hours) will have a big impact on smaller tight-knit work teams. Paying attention to how employees are feeling is important right now. Employees feeling undervalued or dis-connected will be less inclined to bring their best to their role, impacting their work and the customer experience. Gathering real-time feedback, for example, via a regular employee pulse survey, will collect crucial data, not only on how employees are feeling and the type of support measures they want, but staff insight into how they could better serving its customers at this time. These insights will enable small business owners to take steps to improve and strengthen employee and customer relationships, setting them in good stead for the future.

We believe there are lots of ways that market research can help start-ups and smaller businesses overcome the disruption and keep customers engaged with products and services. We talk in more detail about Market Research for Start-ups and SMEs here.

Author: Glyn Luckett, commercial director at TTi Global Research, a division of GP Strategies.