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Prove the Need for Qualitative Research to Executives [4 Strategies]

Forge a stronger relationship between leadership and your customers—and bring qualitative insights to the forefront for larger initiatives.

Words by Charles Perry, Visuals by Austin Smoldt-Sáenz

How can you persuade an executive team to invest in a research project when the most compelling argument is hiding in the future findings of that exact project?

As a Research Solutions Consultant on Dscout’s new business team—and as a Lead Research Advisor working with Dscout subscribers for years before that—I hear the same story over and over:

A leader or leadership team is making major strategic decisions based on:

  • Instinct
  • Conversations with a handful of colleagues
  • Research of questionable quality, or
  • Quantitative data only

As a result, they’re running the risk of losing touch with their customers, allowing their core offerings to get stale, and launching new products or services that don’t resonate.

Taking action doesn’t happen overnight

It can take years for this kind of disconnect to reveal itself—especially for established companies where feedback cycles are measured in months or quarters.

Talented founders or a seasoned C-suite can get a lot of mileage out of uninspired but historically dependable surveys, business intelligence, and trusting their gut.

But without thoughtful, timely, qualitative research with real live users, sooner or later product teams, department heads, or even whole organizations end up in some version of the same crisis:

Conversion rates are falling. Market share and brand loyalty are slipping, and because nobody can say confidently why this is happening, nobody’s sure what to do about it.

So to anyone who finds their way blocked by influential “executive truths” that are anything but certain, I say—take heart!

Convincing leadership there’s a chasm between what’s assumed to be motivating users and what’s actually motivating users isn’t easy.

But with over a decade of helping our customers uncover what’s really driving user beliefs and behavior, we’ve identified a few strategies for proving the need for research and helping executives get out of their own way.

How to advocate for your research

Strategy 1: Just run the research

If stakeholders keep resisting or avoiding calls for research outright, my favorite approach is to start small and go rogue.

Most organizations are tolerant enough that running an unsanctioned 10-participant project on a key issue is worth the potential blowback. More than a few times, I’ve aided and abetted researchers as they cobbled together just enough time and money from other teams or next year’s budget to run something without explicit permission that went on to have a dramatic impact.

There are obvious risks with this approach, and it helps to have some social capital ready for withdrawal. But if the impact of a quick and dirty research engagement speaks for itself, asking for forgiveness afterward can be a savvier play than waiting (and waiting…) for permission while poorly informed products keep shipping.

When in cahoots with a Dscout customer on this kind of an underground effort, my team works to write questions likely to produce short open-ended and selfie-style video answers so startling and relevant that stakeholders will forget they didn’t officially approve this work in the first place.

The goal with this kind of play isn’t to create an enormous change overnight. It’s to create enough doubt in an influential assumption about customer behavior that further inquiry is a no-brainer.

Strategy 2: Find strength in numbers with a team

Glomming onto initiatives already in progress—or carving out some space in regularly repeating research—are other avenues for proving executive truths wrong.

This still requires some political deftness and relationship building, but for every researcher at a big company desperate to get a project off the ground, there’s often one somewhere else who needs help thinking about their own work in an exciting new way (or using up some budget before the end of the fiscal year).

Seeking out and teaming up with another researcher or data scientist has a number of benefits. It requires skillful interest alignment and research design to incorporate a new line of inquiry into preexisting research—which are skills every good researcher needs to continually develop.

Collaborating in this way also gives researchers the chance to mentor, be mentored, and consider their usual responsibilities and preferred methodologies in a new context.

Siloed data can answer narrow questions for a small audience. Triangulating insights across disciplines, teams, or initiatives can lead to far-reaching breakthroughs.

“Siloed data can answer narrow questions for a small audience. Triangulating insights across disciplines, teams, or initiatives can lead to far-reaching breakthroughs.”

Charles Perry
Lead Research Advisor and Customer Success Manager, Dscout

Strategy 3: Run projects executives are excited about

Execs have a way of fast-tracking pet projects they think are particularly important, and are more receptive to greenlighting work that focuses on topics they personally find exciting. (They’re human, too.)

Volunteering to run an unexpected project proposed (or demanded) by leadership can be richly rewarding—though harrowing at times. Pitching a project on an issue an exec champions or returns to again and again can also be effective at jump-starting stalled work.

The trick is to first get aligned and rigorously set expectations—regarding motivations behind this research, best-case scenario data output, timeline, and responsibilities. Then design a research plan so it’s likely to capture what senior decision-makers need to hear—not just what they want to hear.

Be ready to propose a new battle plan if results actually end up proving executive expectations wrong. Having their assumptions called into question will be an uncomfortable, destabilizing moment for leadership. Offer some solid ground and a way forward.

One of my favorite examples of this involved a project for a major airline, whose executives were confident customer satisfaction was high due to record ticket sales and solid NPS scores.

When asked to collect short videos of customers describing their glowing experience and overall feelings about this airline, a researcher I advised saw a chance to give these execs a much-needed reality check.

So together, we wrote a screener and unmoderated video survey designed to capture reactions from participants who had strong opinions about their recent flying experience—positive or negative.

As a result, we collected an emotionally charged series of videos. Some were pleasant and matched leadership assumptions. Others were angry and exasperated and upended those same assumptions.

It doesn’t make much sense to continue with the status quo when research just upended crucial decision-maker assumptions.

Strategy 4: If all else fails, prepare for the next opportunity

If it’s impossible or inadvisable to run research, focus on planting the seed for future efforts. Let internal stakeholders know research needs to be part of the plan for next quarter or next year, and why.

Give them a chance to acclimate to the possibility that business intelligence and analytics dashboards don’t tell the whole story. Be on the lookout for opportunities to educate how “big data” and qualitative data can work together to paint a more complete picture—leading ultimately to more informed, confident, strategic decision-making.

Detective work is another good first step when immediate action is out of the question. The news is awash with stories of companies that have lost the plot when it comes to meeting customers where they are.

More often than I would have guessed, companies become Dscout subscribers because an app or marketing or core offering overhaul simply didn’t work.

When blocked from running critical research, prepare for next time however possible. Compile publicly available data suggesting what the executive team “knows” to be true may not, in fact, be true.

Dig through past internal research for anything that might bolster your case. Reach out to current or past colleagues who are likely to be sympathetic. Ask probing questions when presented with quantitative data—why are users behaving as they are? Determine which key metrics a deeper understanding of users is likely to influence.

Parting thoughts

Reactive or disorganized organizations don’t evolve into disciplined, proactive ones overnight. It takes a persistent, crafty researcher to convince an executive team they don’t have all the answers. But every little win—a slightly rattled exec here, a new like-minded peer relationship there—can add up to a big one: a growing, top-down appetite for research.

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Charles got his start investigating the motivations that drive behavior as a film student. As a Solutions Consultant, he’s helped hundreds of dscout customers meet urgent and strategic research needs that impact critical business metrics.

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