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Qualitative Research: Are Your Teams Up to the Task?

Nicole Newton Nicole Newton 06/03/2022

As Heart of the Customer’s CX Practice Lead and a long-time marketing research practitioner, I’m always focused on gathering the most accurate data to answer the problem at hand. Why are sales lower than anticipated? Why is the customer retention rate lower than projected for certain product lines? What can we do to make it easier for customers to work with us?

Back when I was first developing marketing research methodologies, I considered how to gather data as quickly, accurately, and cost-effectively as possible.

Internet-based surveys were relatively easy to conduct and could get me results fast…as long as I had access to email addresses. But with response rates less than 1.5% – on a good day! – I worried about non-response bias.

Focus groups were also relatively quick, but cost more. Plus, I had to worry about recruiting the “right” customers. (And some of my internal clients back then only wanted quantitative studies with at least 300 customers responding.)

Revealing customers’ thoughts and behaviors

As I started to focus on understanding customers’ experiences, and specifically what it’s like for customers to go through selected journeys, I began to rely more and more on qualitative research as my core, go-to methodology. We could always do quantitative work afterward, if need be. But I realized qualitative research was the best way to truly understand why customers think and behave the way they do.

That meant we had to gather that data through conversations, not surveys.

In the beginning, I felt the best way to get accurate results was to turn to professional qualitative researchers for data collection. But our internal customers were not always motivated to act on that research. That we collected accurate and compelling data didn’t matter.

Why? Because that qualitative research that had been done at arm’s length from the internal sponsor.

Then, years ago, an innovation consulting firm introduced me to a methodology that called for company employees to collect customer feedback. The firm recognized that if the company employees had buy-in to the customer research, learned how to work as a team, developed a deep empathy for customers, and drew on their knowledge of company offerings, they would be well-positioned to create the best solutions for customers.

It turned out that this methodology worked very well for research questions that required company actions to remedy.

Is that what you’re grappling with? If so, we found that companies had to do three things well to make the most of this methodogy:

  • Select customers correctly

    It’s critical to focus on a well-defined group, as you will only be speaking a dozen or so customers.

  • Train your employee team to probe and clarify

    Build a comprehensive interview guide and teach employees how to gather customer feedback.

  • Collect video and audio recordings

    Hearing real customers tell their stories is the best way to build customer empathy across the employee team.

    Nowadays, we often hear clients say they’re uncomfortable asking their customers to allow us to record their interviews. But customers themselves rarely decline the request! (Of course, we expressly ask their permission first, explain how we’ll use the video, and give them the option to remain anonymous. You should do all that, too.)

    Failing to record these qualitative interviews mean missing a valuable opportunity to multiply their impact. It’s not enough to gather data, you’ve got to deploy it to drive action. Using video clips is highly effective in helping your colleagues understand your customers’ experiences. Even audio will have an impact, if that’s all that’s available.

    By selecting excerpts that emphasize key points and learnings, you can really show what’s on your customers’ minds and – most importantly – get your teams fired up to doing something about it.

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