Part 1: Why Conventional Market Research Isn’t Enough

Throughout history information was one of the scarcest and most precious resources on earth. It was the key to power for rulers, military leaders and the rich. Accurate information was akin to drops of water in the desert. But today information comes at us like a firehose! And while many companies are drowning in a tsunami of facts they still thirst for the genuine insights needed to solve complex problems.

Unfortunately, information that may be interesting or factually correct isn’t necessarily useful or actionable. In our increasingly competitive economy, companies of all sizes and within all sectors need new ways to connect with their customers.

Traditional approaches to explaining customer behavior are frequently unproductive and outmoded because they’re framed to confirm or disprove a pre-conceived hypothesis. Based on an “inside out” approach, they typically focus on mapping reactions against existing products, services or internally held assumptions. Designed to measure rather than inform, they rarely transcend the superficiality of what your customers say to unearth what they really mean. And that is no longer enough for organizations seeking to remain on the cutting edge.

Innovative solutions require fresh techniques to penetrating layers of conventional wisdom. A Fortune Magazine article by Ronald B. Lieber addressed the limitations of two common methodologies … surveys and focus groups … this way:
It seems that traditional market research no longer works with an increasingly diverse and fickle customer base. The methods marketers have relied on for decades – perfunctory written, phone or online surveys – simply skim the surface of the shifting customer zeitgeist. Such surveys are nothing more than tracking studies.
Even focus groups may have outlived their usefulness. People often lie about their real feelings if the rest of the group disagrees with them. Or their memories of an encounter with your company or your company’s product may not be fresh.
So before examining an alternative, let’s first explore why relying exclusively on conventional methodologies may fail to arm your company with the actionable insights you need to craft the best strategic solutions.

Traditional Quantitative Research

Quantitative studies concentrate on measurement designed to assure statistical accuracy among a targeted population by collecting data from enough people within that population to guarantee the sample size is representative. Findings, based on numbers, are objective. At times, this dispassionate form of information is essential.

A service business, for example, might be in the process of selecting real estate locations. Determining the size of a potential market, the distance away of each competitor, hourly traffic patterns and the demographic composition of the community all require verifiable data.

Such data may support a decision regarding whether or not to proceed with a particular location but it won’t be enough to help a business thrive. For that, genuine insight is required and quantitative surveys lack a reliable interpretive component.

Comprised of structured questions with pre-determined response options, a survey assumes in advance the validity of a particular set of questions. If the assumptions are wrong or if they are phrased in a way that slants the response, the results may be both technically accurate and misleading.

Retail customers, for example, might be presented with a list of choices and asked to rank them in order of importance. Let’s assume half the customers ranked price as their most important consideration.

Does a good price mean the store runs lots of sales or that it always has the lowest price on sale merchandise? Is it about frequently purchased items or an across-the-board value perception? Do good everyday low prices trump promotional sales? Or, are shoppers merely susceptible to store display techniques that imply a deal?

Unless rankings and responses are understood within the context of how customers react emotionally to pricing, an accurate answer may result in the wrong solution.

Focus Groups

Unlike quantitative surveys, focus groups provide the opportunity to personally observe what participants do and say. It sounds promising. If only they were more reliable.

A Bloomberg Businessweek article entitled Shoot the Focus Group addressed the reluctance customers may have to be candid in front of other people. A number of years ago America Online observed a disconnect between what men revealed in focus groups and the complaints about spam they received via e-mail. It turned out that men, when in a room with strangers, were unwilling to admit they didn’t have full command of their laptops. But they did inundate AOL with e-mails in which they conceded that they were tortured by underperforming spam blockers.

Regardless of how skilled the moderator, the importance of peer pressure cannot be overstated. The group dynamic often inhibits what opinions those in attendance are willing to express or what they will share about themselves. A dominant personality may monopolize the conversation or discourage others from taking an opposing view.

Another drawback is best characterized as the laboratory setting syndrome. Perhaps a company has a new product in development or is trying to decide on the best communications strategy or is exploring the possibility of launching a new service. While still in the planning stage, focus groups are held to obtain customer feedback.

What could be better than a group of people devoting a couple of hours to thinking about nothing other than your company’s question? Well, that’s precisely the problem. In the real world no one will ever reflect on a question being posed in such a vacuum. Instead of hours they will devote minutes, perhaps only seconds, to making a snap decision.

Often their reasons for doing so will have nothing to do with what they said in the focus group. Author Malcolm Gladwell reinforced this quandary when he asserted:

Asking someone to explain their behavior and intent is not only a psychological impossibility, but it biases them in favor of the conservative, in favor of the known over the unknown.

Focus group participants are paid to contribute so they feel obligated to join in the discussion. But their contribution may have little to do with how they’d actually react at home or work in real time. They may simply feel compelled to fill the void when asked to think about something for an extended period without interruption.

Another fallacy with focus groups is the illusion of time. While they’re billed as a way to explore an issue at length, the math doesn’t support the claim. Assume ten people meet for ninety minutes and during that time they are asked three questions. That equates to three minutes per person per question; very little time by any measure. And that assumes everyone participates equally. All members, however, don’t participate equally and some, intimidated by peer pressure, never express their true beliefs or reveal their actual behavior.

Traditional Qualitative In-Depth Interviews

In-depth interviews are particularly well suited to understanding complex situations, exposing underlying emotional triggers and providing the foundation for strategic planning. Free of the negative constraints of focus groups, they provide a much richer opportunity for personal interaction. Regardless of the benefits they offer, however, it’s misleading to group all in-depth interviews together. They’re not all the same.

The most common format for in-depth interviews consists of a prepared discussion guide featuring a specific set of pre-determined topics. It’s a structured interview closely aligned to the survey methodology. As a rule, while the framework theoretically allows for greater exploration of a particular issue, many discussion guides are just long version questionnaires. They have set questions and a precise order those questions are asked. Interviewees, presented with a range of predetermined questions, have little flexibility to express themselves in candid and unexpected ways. They are constrained by the conventional manner in which this format is executed.

Regardless of whether or not questions are open-ended, strict adherence to a discussion guide oftentimes eclipses a spontaneous exchange because … from the start … it’s driven by a fixed notion of what the topics should be and how best to broach them.

Participants may be encouraged to elaborate on a question posed to them. But that’s different than beginning with a clean “outside-in” slate. As a result nuances that would explain crucial emotional triggers may go undetected. Such interviews produce answers more often than insights.

A New Form of Research

The motivations customers act on are seldom logical, predictable, or even conscious. Instead, their strongest responses stem from one source: emotion. Regardless of whether your customers are consumers or other businesses all customers are people. And people are emotional beings. This deceptively simple reality changes the way organizations must go about understanding their customers. It requires the ability to transcend what is said to uncover what is really meant.

Discover how an indirect approach that disarms customers with provocative open-ended questions provides a more authentic window into the emotional triggers that explain their attitudes and behavior. When asked the unexpected, most individuals have no ready answers. That’s why their unplanned responses are more revealing and will better arm you with the actionable intelligence needed to solve complex problems.