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Research is how we ask questions, listen and learn

Don Hoyt Gorman

To get to meaningful, impactful content, we start by asking questions and listening.

We do this all the time on behalf of our clients. We ask questions, broadly and precisely so we can understand as well as possible the outline of their challenge. Getting this part of the job right sets us up to deliver better strategies, content and design than we could otherwise do. So, we listen; professionally.

Here are a few things that we’ve learned in the process:

We carefully consider our clients' perceptions of their own problems

Clients come to us when they have identified a challenge that they need solving. Often, the brief goes like this: “This is the shape of our problem, we’ve identified we need a solution, we’d like to hire you to tackle it.”

That’s a great starting point for a client project. Realistically, how the challenge has been framed and put to us is a result of widely varying internal processes, dialogues and power play. It’s always biased. So, our first job is to validate and really the problem.

On a project for a maritime engineering firm, I conducted interviews with internal stakeholders to get to the root of a brand-perception problem that the leadership wanted to change.

Two themes emerged. Many employees believed their company was a beloved stalwart of its industry: trusted and dependable. But others — almost a third of the employees I spoke with — had a different story. The company was arrogant, expensive, lacking in innovation and slow to deliver compared to its competitors. And, they assured me, customers were looking elsewhere to place their business.

That much the client knew, but there was more at play. Nearly all of the employees who had the negative brand story to tell were former employees of the company’s nearest competitor.

So we re-interviewed to interrogate the negative perception and learned that it had been cultivated as competitive propaganda. It should have been obvious to leadership, but it wasn’t. And just identifying that perception issue helped guide our strategy (hint: employee engagement).

We research the context of the problem, then research the problem itself

All strategists face the same challenge: ‘How do we ask the right questions about a problem we don’t yet understand?’

We divide the research in two. First, we ask open questions about the context of the problem at hand. Have we understood the problem correctly? Are there underlying issues, trends or forces that may be driving the situation? We ask questions, at first, to ensure we ask the right questions next.

Then we define the problem and design the research approach that will give us the data, information and knowledge we need. Then, we share those insights so our client is up to speed, and we offer recommendations on what we'll do next.

We listen for the opportunity to reframe the research

I learned a good trick from an old newshound mentor: at some point in an interview, I just say nothing. I'll carry on writing notes and let the interviewee step in to fill that empty space. Because, more often than you would think, they’ll tell me what the real story is.

No matter how well we research and prepare for interviews, we are always imposing a set of parameters onto a subject’s experience. If we are diligent and lucky, perhaps we will understand their situation almost as well as they do. But most of the time, that’s not actually the case; what we need to do is let our subject tell us what the story is, from their perspective.

So, we give them that space. We let them tell us. And then, we listen and let our questions be guided by the real-world situation they are in.

We always remember that research is a brand experience

When we ask questions — of employees, subject matter experts, customers and others — we know that the experience of being asked is also an experience of the brand.

When designing surveys and interviews for employees and customers, we keep in mind that we are crafting an experience that represents our client. And creating a thoughtful, informed, positive experience for research subjects helps us get the information we need, while also conveying that our client cares about their thoughts and experiences.  

Market research shouldn’t be treated like market-facing brand activities — it needs to be able to operate free from those guidelines. But it behoves the team asking the questions to remember that the act of asking is in itself an extension of the brand’s personality.

Listening is a powerful way to build trust, even in B2B

In big B2B organisations, there is hesitation around directly asking what customers want and need. ‘Surely, if we know our business,’ some clients say, ‘we shouldn’t have to ask our customers what they want.’

But if you don’t know how others experience you or the value you offer, can you really say you know your business?

So we ask questions, and listen to customers. We speak to them and engage with them. We're open to their circumstances, their fears, their ambitions and their demands. And we recommend that our clients try to always be listening, if possible.

It's not easy to come up with an idea that will improve the lives of customers and the world they inhabit. Research projects offer us the opportunity to speak directly to the people a brand is for, to hear from them about their concerns, their world and their hopes for the future.

In amongst the stats and the quotes, there are insights that fall outside the primary scope of research, but nonetheless offer our clients the opportunity to pin genuine ideas and insights onto the boardroom wall.

Listen, then act

As a content strategist, I lead research that is designed to help our clients tell their stories clearly, creatively and effectively. There was a time when the expected output of B2B market research was solely about leveraging data to optimise our clients’ business goals. But there is change afoot.

Today, asking questions and listening to answers is — perhaps as it always should have been — critical for brands that want to be part of the conversations about environmental, social and cultural issues. It’s an opportunity for brands to become self-aware, to consider themselves as corporate citizens and to hear and amplify the concerns and values of their customers.

And so, on behalf of all of our clients, we question the questions, embrace the answers – even the surprising ones – and we never, ever stop listening.