How much information is enough information?

March 4, 2020

Asking a lot of people for a lot of information doesn’t necessarily mean that it will lead to understanding. How many of us have received requests to answer one or the other questionnaire about our recent purchase / flight / hotel stay / restaurant meal or grocery shopping? How many of us have started out trying to answer the questions honestly until it turns into something like doing work?

And then we just tick the boxes quickly to get it over with. And then we have to wonder, if everyone answers the questions equally half-heartedly, then of what value can these answers possibly be and does the company really base its business development decisions on this input?

In board rooms executives pour over the results of various customer and performance research comparisons. Presuming that these represent some king of truth, decisions are made that have very little basis in reality and that can, in the worst case, affect customer satisfaction negatively. Probably the one outcome that the executives tried to avoid. However, at the end of the day, everything was done correctly and no one is to blame for anything that didn’t exactly go right.

Graham Kenny uses an example of asking people in seminars about how they chose one convenience store over another. The responses from the whole group invariably group into six categories: location, opening hours, selection, presentation, service and price. It is important to note, that everyone in the seminar is a convenience store customer at one time or another. Yet no one single customer could have defined all six factors, because each person could probably only recall one or two recent experiences and what their decision criteria were at that time.

Asking a lot of people through a questionnaire, however, may not lead to this grouping. If it is a multiple choice questionnaire, then the answers are already pre-determined. If they are open ended, then without discussion of what the respondent meant with his or her answer, quite a lot may be lost in translation. And if the questionnaire is long and the incentive to answer low, then the answers will be equally poor quality.

You don’t need more information. You need understanding.

Asking a thousand people for input will give you zero ideas.
Talking to 10 people will give you a thousand ideas.

In-depth customer interviews yield both information and understanding, because the conversations allow you to understand your customers’ motivation for decisions. Uncovering why customers are choosing a particular convenience store or bank or restaurant is invariably much more valuable than the information, that they chose it.

Management often, and incorrectly, presume that in-depth conversations with customers will be very expensive and time consuming and that a questionnaire answered by a much broader group of customers will yield more information. The thing is, there is not a need for a great many interviews. The interviews have to continue until the answers start repeating themselves and usually this is achieved by 5-15 interviews conducted in-depth.

Once the key issues are outlined by in-depth interviews, validation of the key issues through quantitative research provides an additional layer of understanding defining how wide spread the issues really are.

Take it easy. And listen.

Understanding customer input requires empathy and patience. The goal is a deep dive into understanding their motivation and reasoning behind decision making. In order to get real insight from customers, you must be able to put yourself in their shoes, and see the world with their eyes. Furthermore, you have to be able interpret what they are saying into a context that makes business sense. This is especially important when you are working on innovation projects, where the goal is to deliver a new quality or experience to customers. After all, you can’t ask them what they want nor what is wrong, if there is nothing obviously the matter currently. Translating weak signals and amplifying them so they come out of the research is crucial, if you want to capture real insight. This again requires time to listen, to talk and to ask them to elaborate and explain anything that doesn’t immediately make sense. Or you’ll miss it.