A deep-dive is necessary to find colourful coral: why qualitative research matters for organisations

In today’s business contexts where technology develops rapidly, organisations mainly focus on obtaining quantitative data. Take the example of the Net Promotor Score (NPS), which gives an indication of customers’ satisfaction and customer loyalty. But does that really tap into the customer’s experience? Organisations heavily adopted this metric as a handheld for senior management. It has been used to draw conclusions of the customer experience and link this directly to the firm’s performance in terms of sales and revenues. Ironically speaking, whole sales teams are assessed based on one single number, while this number does not tell anything about what, why, and how customers experience products or services. This valuable information can only be obtained by using qualitative data instead. Yet, somewhere along the line, organisations seem to have forgotten about the value that qualitative research adds to their understanding of customer needs and business performance. Therefore, this article will state the importance for organisations to involve qualitative research into their daily business practices and help them how to do this.

An introduction to qualitative research
In academia, qualitative research is becoming more topical in fields like management and marketing. While it is rooted in other social sciences like anthropology, scholars seem to adopt qualitative research more and more to understand customers in both B2B and B2C contexts. Where quantitative research answers for example the ‘how many’ or ‘how often’ questions, qualitative research is considered to answer the ‘what’, ‘how’, ‘why’ questions. For example: ‘what are customers’ needs and wants?’, ‘how do customers use a certain product or service?’, ‘why do customers appreciate products or service?’. Looking at these questions, qualitative research is ideal for understanding customer’s life world. Basically, and put in business terms, qualitative research is suitable for understanding customers’ opinions and beliefs, needs, perceptions, experience and values. In short, these are all key concepts for organisations to thoroughly comprehend. The following paragraph discusses how qualitative research can be applied in practice.

Qualitative research as a tool to understand customer’s lifeworld
Marketing is about understanding, creating, communicating and delivering value (for customers). Qualitative research is becoming increasingly important in these marketing processes. For example, with understanding the customer’s experience (how customers experience products or services). In this case, quantitative data would remain superficial. Qualitative data on the other hand, allows us to create a deeper understanding of the ‘lived experience’ of customers (how customers experience products or services in their daily lives). Also in mapping the customer journey, qualitative research will be of great use. It helps organisations to map in-depth the needs across different stages in the buy/usage funnel of customers. As a result, organisations are better able to understand their customers.

Take the example of Steve Jobs, who stated, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology – not the other way around”. Only through conducting qualitative research, one can understand the customer experience properly. As such, Apple is able to offer a strong value proposition based on the Golden Circle of ‘why’, ‘how’, and ‘what’.

An example of well-conducted qualitative research is how Oral B developed their toothbrushes for youngsters in the late 90’s. Through observing kids using toothbrushes, Oral B was able to understand how exactly kids use them. A couple of important things came to light: kids hold their toothbrushes in a different way compared to adults; kids hold their toothbrush in their fist, and kids face difficulties holding adult toothbrushes. These findings were uncovered through using so-called “ethnographic research methods”. Through this, a unique and innovative toothbrush with a thick and squishy grip has been developed. This example perfectly illustrates the relevance of qualitative research and what impact it can have.

Useful qualitative methods for organisations
What are qualitative methods that are useful for organisations? There are a couple.

  • Interview: a conversation that contains structure and a purpose. Interviews can have several forms, ranging from semi-structured to structured and unstructured interviews. Try to use interviews when wishing to gather in-depth data about a small group of individuals and their needs, beliefs, value and experiences.
  • Focus group: an organised, facilitated discussion where a researcher provides focus and the group produces data through interaction. Aim to gather 5-10 participants, ask general questions to investigate broader social norms. This method is especially suitable when identifying different needs and a range of opinions across customer groups.
  • Participant observation: this method originates from ethnography, aiming to understand a (sub)culture of a certain group of people. Through observing a certain group of people over a longer period of time, researchers gain an extremely in-depth understanding of their ‘lived experience’. This method is the most intensive and time-consuming and therefore also expensive for organisations. However, participant observation can tap very deep into a customer’s experience and therefore create in-depth insights that other methods cannot do.
  • Online tools: these tools are upcoming knowing that current technologies evolve and improve rapidly. Online platforms are commonly used to gather both quantitative and qualitative data and are able to easily collect great amounts of (big data). For example, a forum can be used to gather people’s opinions and beliefs on certain topics.
  • Hybrid methods: hybrid methods refer to a combination of both quantitative and qualitative methods. Through this, organisations are able to gather important quantitative metrics and support this through qualitative data to understand the ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘what’ behind these metrics. For example, when participants at a congress are being asked to answer questions shown on a big screen through using their smartphone, large amounts of data can be gathered in a short time (quantitative). Afterwards, these participants can be asked for their rationales behind choosing certain answers (qualitative).

A deep-dive in customers’ lifeworld
In today’s society where it is common to send automated questionnaires to customers, organisations seem to miss direct contact with them. As a manager, when is the last time you spoke with your customers? It is key for organisations to recognise the importance of this and not merely focus on superficial quantitative data. Involving qualitative research helps firms to understand customer needs, their experience and mapping the customer journey. Despite it is an intensive and time-consuming (and thus more expensive) way to do research, it yields in-depth insights and will pay off in the long term. As a result, it creates several opportunities for organisations: ranging from an enhanced view of customer needs and their experience, to a more compelling and resonating value proposition.

Metaphorically stated, a deep-dive is necessary to find colourful coral. In business terms, organisations should dive deep to understand the customers’ lifeworld. So, get inside the world of your customer through using qualitative research!


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