Use qualitative research to solve the problems that puzzle you

This blog post shares with you a new way to think about qualitative research  It's about the ‘tend to agrees’?

There’s a group of consumers that I call the ‘tend to agrees’. If we survey them, most of their answers on a 5-point agree-disagree scale are ‘tend to’ (or the equivalent). Maybe there is an occasional ‘strongly’ or a ‘disagree’ or ‘don’t know’, but overall they just ‘tend to agree’. What do you do with these ‘tend to agrees’? Sadly, I think many researchers just ignore them because they don’t know what to do with them.

I argue in this post that to understand them we need qualitative research. What qual research can do that nothing else can do is to help you understand the people who puzzle you by understanding how they live their lives. This includes the ‘tend to agrees’.

Think of the people you don’t understand as the middle pieces in a jigsaw puzzle

Imagine emptying out the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle for the first time and sorting them into corner and edge pieces but ignoring the ‘middle’ pieces. It is easy to start with the corner and edge pieces because there is rarely any ambiguity there – a straight edge is a straight edge. 

This is an analogy for the people with strong views. They are the easy ones. The trouble is, they are quite rare. The picture comes from how these middle pieces fit together. Each middle piece gives a tantalising hint as to where it might fit, but if this is a good jigsaw, a piece could belong in several locations.

Just as most pieces are middle pieces, in some categories most people are nuanced. They weigh one thing up against another. They may be certain of some things but uncertain of others. Like the middle pieces of the jigsaw, until you look at them closely you don’t know where they fit in the picture.

Qualitative research was made for people like this

Some puzzling problems

Most organisations know quite a lot about their customers. 

• They know their current customers well. 

• They know their loyal customers very well. 

• They often also understand their competitors’ customers.

• And they understand the people who complain. 

The people they don’t know as well are their infrequent customers, their dissatisfied customers who don’t complain, and their prospective customers. It’s hard to know the quiet ones.

Avoid being judgemental

It is unfortunately quite common for clients and researchers to blame the people who (say) ‘tend to’ agree for falling short of some artificially-constructed ideal, describing people as ‘not engaged enough’. Once we, as researchers, frame the problem as one of low engagement, that is how we will see the problem. That in turn sends us down the path of trying to engage people more. 

Let’s say this was research about attitudes into sustainability. You or your client may ask:

• “Perhaps we should keep promoting our key point about how endangered the planet is?”

• “Perhaps we should make these customers care more? Should we use more emotive imagery and language?”

When we interviewed people in this category using our qualitative sensemaking technique, we found that attempts to get people to engage more would have been fruitless. This is because the stance these customers were taking came about because they were facing internal conflict, worrying that being pro-sustainability would cause tensions with people they are close to. By pressuring them with emotive imagery, you are asking them to choose between animal welfare (for example) and their own family. Not the best approach.

Don’t blame; reframe

Notice how in my example, we were blaming the customer for not engaging with us? For real insight, researchers need to stop blaming and start reframing. To reframe we need qualitative research to find out where ideas of sustainability (say) fit in into the worlds our customers live in. 

It’s the same for NPS passives*

The people who give a score of 7 or 8 to the NPS ‘recommend’ question have been given the name ‘passives’, presumably on the assumption that they don’t do anything actively for the organisation – they neither advocate nor discourage. This leads to the question about what the organisation should do with these ‘passive’ customers: are they potential advocates, or should they be ignored? Ignore seems to be a common approach - I have even seen these ‘passives’ criticised as ‘disloyal’ or even dishonest!

This is another occasion to frame not blame. The ‘passives’ label hides more than it reveals. There are many possible reasons why someone would be positive but hesitant about recommending your company. 

• Perhaps they don’t know exactly what you do? 

• Perhaps they had a small problem and won’t recommend your organisation until you fix that problem? 

• Perhaps they have not had time to evaluate or assess the product or service they bought from you? 

• Or maybe 8 is the best score they ever give.

What to do: talk to them

In both cases, there is only one way to find you what is going on here, and that is through the deep contextual understanding that qualitative research can give you. And in turn this means that you need to have a conversation with these customers. What are they weighing up? Where is the doubt coming from? 

Interacting with people is key

For a long time in research, some of the loudest voices have been from researchers who distrust people to tell them the truth. The argument has been that we should observe behaviour, and not ask people questions they can’t answer or won’t answer truthfully.  The trouble is -  if all we do is observe we will learn nothing about the inner tensions that stop people acting in a certain way. We also learn nothing about their aspirations, or doubts. 

As often as not we observe them in narrowly-defined settings anyway. 

In contrast, interactive qualitative research (talking to people using whatever medium you like) allows research participants to ‘name their own world’.  They can go as broad as they like. That way, we find out where this product, service or issue fits into the actual world the person is living in and whether it helps them become or remain the person they want to be.

*I am assuming here that the NPS question has been asked in a context where people actually do recommend.


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Tags: Qualitative Research , Sensemaking, NPS

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