Humans and the lost art of qualitative research

Katherine Almond, head of B2B Strategy at Bray Leino, on why data can't tell you what's going on in your customers' heads - and why qualitative research is all about listening.

I am a big fan of Rag’n’bone man. He’s a juxtaposition of wonderfully soulful music, lying beneath a bearded physical presence that’s frankly rather intimidating to a middle-aged, middle-class old bat like me.

I particularly love the line “I’m only human after all”, that’s the point. We are human, with all the foibles and inconsistencies that go with the human condition. Our runaway use of technology is having a profound impact on the way we communicate. But the more reliant we become on data, the further we move away from this fact; we’re still human beings, communicating with other human beings.

We can track, measure and monitor what our audience do online, but the key question is: Why? Algorithms don’t calculate what’s going on in people’s heads - yet.

The fact is, customers probably aren’t interested in what you want to tell them. They’re concerned with the details of their own lives. You know, the stuff we all have to deal with - targets and budgets, objectives, politics, hassles with IT, procurement, new legislation, etc.

As a top five B2B Agency, we see endless client briefs that say, "This is what we want to tell our customers." This is perfectly understandable. Marketing teams are under pressure like everyone else. Sales pipelines need to be filled; the bottom line is an unforgiving mistress. And without quick results, there is every chance heads will roll. But our job as an agency is to step back and interrogate the brief.

You’ve got a new product launch. There’s pressure because R&D costs need to be recouped. It would be simple to just announce it. But that kind of lazy marketing leads to communications that risk being ignored.

A more energetic, strategic approach entails understanding the need that is met by this new product. And instead of just telling customers what it is, communicate how it meets these needs in a compelling and empathetic way.

And that’s where qualitative research comes in.

Hear more from Katherine up close and personal at Ignite 2018. She will be speaking in the Insights stream on the value of brand purpose and how you can out-perform your sector competitors. 

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So, what do I mean by qualitative research?

Simply, it is getting out there and listening to people, and take note, I said listening to people, not talking to them. Done properly, this usually takes the form of one-on-one interviews, ideally face-to-face.

It is easier to establish a rapport face-to-face rather than over the phone, and a skilled and experienced researcher will pick up on non-verbal signs like expressions, body language and energy levels. Where face to face isn’t possible, a video or telephone call is still so much more insightful than not doing the research at all.

Who do we interview?

First stop, sales: Do not discount the wealth of experience and insight that sits within your sales team. Your front-line sales staff know more about your customers and the barriers they put up than anyone in your business. It often happens that sales mention in passing something that turns out to be a hugely significant strategic turning point.

Once, interviewing sales staff at a B2B workwear manufacturer, one of them mentioned a live demo that they’d made part of their sales presentation. I asked to see it and was hugely impressed. It turned out, when I spoke to their customers, that those who’d seen the demo were also impressed, and remembered it years later as the factor that differentiated this company from their competitors. A simple insight unearthed by simply talking to people, and no surprise that our recommendations included a digitised version of the demo.

So much editorial is devoted to how we get sales and marketing working together. In our experience, taking the time to interview sales staff is hugely valuable. Particularly when they see their comments acted upon.

Talking to internal stakeholders alongside sales; operations, service delivery, technical solutions (but mainly sales), will provide the overview that informs the rest of our research. Once we’ve got that picture, we move on to customers, current, future, and if possible, lapsed and unhappy ones.

These interviews are about the all-important what and why questions:

  • Why aren’t they interested in what we’re saying?
  • Why are they prepared to pay more for our competitors’ inferior products?
  • What are their major preoccupations?
  • What is keeping them awake at night?
  • What do people really feel about my brand?
  • What would it take for them to consider switching?

There is a skill to getting people to open up, an art to listening to the unsaid. There’s also a skill to listening to everything that is said, rather than just the bits that confirm your/your client’s hypothesis!

Unstructured, investigative conversations can reveal uncomfortable truths and underlying issues. On a recent project, I identified a staff engagement problem within the client’s business. There was a lack of passion and enthusiasm, a lot of shoulder-shrugging among grass-roots employees, undermining all the things the business was doing right.

Sensitive stuff, and not the objective of my research, but it was my responsibility to deliver an uncomfortable assessment and suggest further investigation. As a result, that business is now well into a new and improved staff engagement programme.

The sensitive nature of qualitative research is why, in my view, it’s vital that the interviewer is independent of the client company. If not, there is a risk that interviewees will be guarded in what they say. They may be reluctant to offend, or they could just be in the mood to put the boot in. Either way, you won’t get a true picture, which defeats the whole point.

This isn’t a numbers game so there’s no set number of interviews. The objective is to find a pattern and to report. And the report is where it gets really interesting. We’re not talking about reportage of what was said – it requires interpretation, where an experienced researcher will use models, frameworks and examples to stress-test their hypotheses.

What comes back usually combines confirmation of some assumptions with a few surprises. Critically, it’s an unbiased insight into the human side of your audience, their hopes, worries and annoyances. It’s the answer to the question: Why?