Whether you are a major corporation or an independent business owner, research is an integral part of your business success. The right kind of research can give you a better understanding of what’s happening in your business, and what to do about it.
In my consultancy, I work primarily with corporates and larger organisations. Many of them spend a significant amount of time and money trying to find out what their customers want. The problem is that a significant proportion of research fails to help organisations move forward, leaving them with seemingly unsolvable problems. Their customers simply aren’t responding in the right way to their initiatives, and they can’t figure out why. It’s not for want of trying, however. These organisations will usually have accumulated a vast amount of research into the issue that’s troubling them. Yet no matter how much they analyse and scrutinise the data, it yields no actionable insights.
In my experience, their unsolvable problems aren’t the result of bad data analysis but of at least one of two mistakes:
- They’re using the wrong type of research to provide the insights they need. In other words, they’re asking questions that the research was not designed to answer.
- They’re trying to apply rational thinking to their research, taking answers at face value instead of within a greater context.
Truly useful and effective research is not merely a matter of collecting data. First, we need to choose the ‘right’ kind of research for our businesses. Next, we need to know how to gather findings that can actually tell us what we need to know. And lastly, we need to be able to interpret and apply those findings within our companies. Unless we give attention to all of these aspects of research, it is unlikely we will reap the benefits we seek from it.
Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research
Before anything else, we must choose which kind of research we need – quantitative or qualitative:
- Quantitative research answers the ‘what’ questions. It tells us what is happening and measures it. What it can’t tell us is why things happen.
- Qualitative research does tell us why: why things happen in a certain way, why people respond to some things and not others, and why certain things motivate them while others do not.
However, both types of research are plagued by rational thinking – uncritically believing what we’re being told. Sometimes, adherence to rational thinking can be maddening, causing large organisations to repeat the same error again and again. They examine the same problem in the same way repeatedly but are nonplussed to discover that this hasn’t yielded anything new. When this happens, gaining true insights through research begins to look impossible.
The answer, in my experience, lies in attaining a much more nuanced understanding of how people think and react. For that, we need a much more penetrating qualitative research approach – one that seeks the truth by looking beyond what people think they think, and uncovers their true feelings.
We get to these true feelings by understanding that the vast majority of the time, human beings act on instinct and feeling. Then we rationalise our actions after the fact. As a result, when you ask customers a question, their answer will be almost always be a rationalisation of what they did, rather than an insight into the unconscious feeling that actually drove their response to your product or service. You get answers that aren’t really very illuminating.
The really important insights we often want from research are actually in the subconscious. Thus, what we actually want to get at in our research is this unconscious or tacit knowledge: all the things we intuitively know and but don’t consciously articulate, even to ourselves.
Mining Tacit Knowledge
Tacit knowledge is truly the stuff of customer insight. When we can access it, we’re well on the way to acquiring really astute and important customer understanding.
Over the years as a corporate consultant, my company have used social sciences to develop a range of techniques to help organisations mine tacit knowledge. When companies learn how to do this, they can take their qualitative research to the next level. For research to have real depth, it requires highly trained interviewers using well-structured approaches.
For example, when I conduct research for a company, I use a combination of psychological techniques that help immerse us – holistically – into the mind of the interviewee. This kind of approach enables us to glean the rich information and tacit knowledge that truly illuminate the issue at hand.
Putting In-Depth Research into Practice
Gathering in-depth research is the first step of the process; next, we’ve got to interpret our findings accurately and then put them into practice in our companies.
Here’s an example of how one B2B company applied their research to bring about positive changes. I once worked with an electronics company that sold hardware and software on a contract basis, typically on four-year terms. All their sales effort was geared around contract renewal dates. However, our research identified that their customers were making decisions about software long before their contract renewal dates. Our client’s traditional research, including customer satisfaction, had never uncovered this change in customer behaviour. Armed with this new knowledge, our client put a regular account-management process in place to build customer engagement between renewals.
Another client of ours – an engineering consulting business – provides another example of how the right kind of research can turn a flagging business around. This company had long-term contracts across the world. They had a set of clients who were very happy with the service they received and the skills transferred to their employees. However, business wasn’t scaling up; once their customers completed their contracts, they rarely went on to purchase long-term maintenance contracts.The company’s quantitative research was indicating that price was an issue, but their market intelligence showed they were in the right price band. They obviously had a problem but didn’t know the real cause.
Our qualitative research identified that their clients were simply unclear about the consultancy’s vision and strategy for the future. This was affecting their perception of the consultancy firm as a long-term business partner. As a result of this insight, the consultancy put a clear vision in place and shared their strategy with key clients. Remarkably, retention and conversion rates of maintenance contracts increased by 35% in the year following implementation of this programme.
Where Does Your Organisation Fit into This Picture?
I know that many of you reading this are from smaller, independent businesses rather than large corporations. Nonetheless, these principles of research apply to your company just as much as they would to the biggest multinational on the planet. Before you begin your research, ask yourself:
- What problems is your business currently facing (falling or stagnant sales, weak customer engagement, high customer churn, etc.)?
- How do much you really understand about why they are happening? How well do you understand where your difficulties stem from?
- Do you have systems in place to tackle these issues?
- Do you feel that some things are unfixable because you have no real idea why they are happening?
- Do you sometimes feel stuck because you believe you don’t have the resources to address the issues right now?
Whether big or small, organisations can always help themselves by getting to the root of their issues through the right kind of research. Only by digging deep and finding out what’s really going on can you address the real problem you may be encountering.
And don’t be afraid of what you’ll find when you go there. You just might find that your seemingly ‘unsolvable’ problems are surprisingly easy to fix without a great deal of expense. If you or your company are looking for rich, ethical solutions to your research challenges, do connect with us on our website or social media (you’ll find our links below).
10th September 2014
Cindy is a graduate of our 7 Graces ‘Foundations of Ethical Marketing ’ course. To find out more about this course and our growing community of ethical marketers, CLICK HERE to to come along to our FREE info call on 24th September.
CINDY BARNES (MBA) is a business and psychology consultant with a background in engineering, product and service innovation, marketing, business development and leadership. She is qualified as a counsellor in Transactional Analysis and is the co-author of the bestselling book, Creating and Delivering Your Value Proposition. As an engineer, Cindy has created, developed and sold many leading edge products and services. She ran large-scale, unionised automotive component factories for Smiths Industries, and led research and development for Panavision, developing a leading-edge product which is still their most profitable to date. Later, she led marketing and business development for Capgemini and co-created a new business unit that had sales of £83m and a pipeline of £309m in 12 months from a zero start. In 2003 she founded the consultancy ‘Futurecurve’, which helps companies navigate from a product ‘push’ focus to a true, sustainable customer ‘pull’ focus, enabling them to out-perform their peers by delivering genuine value to customers. Customers include global corporations, governmental organisations and not-for-profits. She is passionate about nature and sustainability and supports local environmental groups and social enterprises. She is also a graduate of the 7 Graces Foundations of Ethical Marketing Course and active member of the 7 Graces Community.
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LYNN SERAFINN, MAED, CPCC is a certified, award-winning coach, teacher, marketer, social media expert, radio host, speaker and author of the number one bestseller The 7 Graces of Marketing — How to Heal Humanity and the Planet by Changing the Way We Sell and Tweep-e-licious! 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market their Business Ethically. She is listed in the Top 20 of the Top Marketing Authors on Twitter by Social Media Magazine and was a finalist for the prestigious Brit Writers Awards. She also received the eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian and Ecological Social Affairs, as well as the Bronze Medal in Business and Sales. Lynn’s eclectic approach to marketing incorporates her vast professional experience in the music industry and the educational sector along with more than two decades of study and practice of the spirituality of India. Her innovative marketing campaigns have produced a long list of bestselling non-fiction authors through her company Spirit Authors.
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