Last spring my company needed to make some important business decisions. We had been in business for a year, and things weren’t taking off as we had hoped. Our first thought was that we had the wrong product. We had the engineering know-how and could probably get the funding to enhance the product’s performance, but considering the opportunity and financial costs, we needed to be sure it was the right thing to do. Who could tell us what to do?
Customers are a wealth of information. Customers hold all the answers businesses need to grow, whether they know it or not. For established products and markets, getting these answers can be straightforward; you just ask the customers the questions and tabulate the answers, often in the form of quantitative research.
But, what do you when the customer can’t answer your questions because they have never experienced the benefit you provide? This is the classic new product, new market problem. In this case, quantitative research can be misleading and lead to incorrect conclusions, but often qualitative research can help you out.
Qualitative research is really just a bunch of great conversations you have with your customers. The keys to good qualitative research are open questions, open ears, and an open mind. Think of yourself as an anthropologist or therapist. Your job is to absorb the context, emotion, attitude, perceptions from the subjects without prejudice, and understand the world from their point of view. Only through this lens can you understand the barriers they face to choosing the solution you are offering.
Because you’re not looking for statistical significance, you don’t need a whole bunch of conversations, 10-15 typically suffice. You know when you’ve had enough when you start being able to predict the customers’ responses to the questions.
In our case, we put together about ten open questions, and called 15 customers. The results were astounding! We discovered new ways to talk to our customers, new dimensions of innovation for our product line that we had never imagined, and most importantly, we realized we could make some simple, cheap changes that would have a much more dramatic impact than would any product modification. We literally saved millions of dollars by spending a couple of hours on the phone with our customers.
If you find yourself stuck and don’t know which path to take, ask the person who is paying you to figure it out, your customer.