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Maximizing The Value Of Interview Research July 2012
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Maximizing The Value Of Interview Research July 2012


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In the past decade quantitative data has become much more readily available for business decision making, especially in marketing. Our increased capacity to measure, track, and survey our operations …

In the past decade quantitative data has become much more readily available for business decision making, especially in marketing. Our increased capacity to measure, track, and survey our operations and customers has boosted our ability to gain transparency on our businesses. And while the ability of quantitative data to improve decision-making is tremendous, its rise in popularity and prevalence masks one disadvantage; a corresponding decline in use of and appreciation for qualitative research. As we move beyond the age of information and into the age of the customer, as Forrester Research has called it, and as competitive landscapes continue to shift and re-form, the value of qualitative research is actually growing in importance. Qualitative research has the ability to guide, illuminate, augment and explain quantitative data. One of the most powerful tools to understand a B2B environment remains the one-on-one interview with buyers, influencers, stakeholders, and industry experts.
In our practice, across industries and sectors, our clients find that qualitative research provides a level of richness and depth that can yield an unparalleled understanding of their target markets. In a B2B context in particular, where buying decisions are typically complex, qualitative research can provide invaluable insights into decision-making that can’t be captured in a simple survey – not just the ‘what’ of buying behaviour, but the ‘why.’ And, sometimes, quantitative data simply isn’t accessible in a meaningful way in a given industry or specialization, while qualitative data is much easier to obtain.
This White Paper is based on thousands of qualitative interviews we have conducted over more than a decade on behalf of Fortune 500 and small-to-mid-sized B2B companies in a range of industries, as well as professional associations. It will be of interest to anyone who seeks to understand how they can enhance their strategy, customer service, operations and overall business or organizational success by using interviews as a research tool.

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  • 1. CONVERSATIONS WITH PURPOSE Maximizing the value of interview researchInterview research is an incredibly powerful tool that allows businesses togain a rich and nuanced understanding of what really drives buyers, com-petitors, users, members, and suppliers. But getting the most out of aninterview process requires a thoughtful, systematic, and skilled approach.The research objectives must be clearly defined, and then the implemen-tation must be oriented towards the objectives set. There are a numberof pitfalls that can reduce the value of interview research, but they can beavoided with advance planning.Copyright © 2012 The Mezzanine Group. All rights reserved.
  • 2. MAXIMIZING THE VALUE OF INTERVIEW RESEARCHINTERVIEW RESEARCH REMAINS SUCCESSFUL INTERVIEW RESEARCHONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT – ANDOFTEN UNDERUTILIZED – WAYS FOR There is more to conducting effective qualitative re- search than simply calling up a few people and readingB2B COMPANIES AND ORGANIZA- a script of questions. We will cover the key elementsTIONS TO GENERATE IRREPLACE- to a successful interview process, and offer advice onABLE INSIGHTS TO GUIDE CRITICAL how to address common challenges in interview re-DECISIONS. A DEEP UNDERSTANDING search.OF WHAT CUSTOMERS, BUYERS, US-ERS, MEMBERS, COMPETITORS, SUP- This white paper is based on the thousands of quali-PLIERS, INFLUENCERS, AND OTHER tative interviews that we conducted over more thanDECISION-MAKERS THINK CAN DRIVE a decade, across a range of industries, on behalf ofSTRATEGY, REFINE TACTICS, AND IM- small, mid-size, and Fortune 500 B2B companies, and professional associations. It will be of interest to any-PROVE OVERALL PERFORMANCE. one seeking to understand how they can enhance their strategy, operations, customer service, and overall success by using interviews as a research tool. For more on the value of interview research, see our companion white paper titled “Conversations with purpose: Improving decisions with the power of interview research,” which explains the benefits of interviews and when to use them. The Mezzanine Group 02
  • 3. WHAT IS REQUIRED TO CONDUCTINTERVIEW RESEARCH EFFECTIVELY?1. Define research objectives • If the interviewees are relatively senior, or theClearly defined research objectives are one of issues are complex, it is important that thethe most critical aspects of conducting qualita- interviewer be given a level of autonomy totive interviews successfully. Without understand- move the interview in the direction they seeing exactly what information you seek, it can be fit. Without this, the interviews will be uniformtempting to ask as many questions as possible, and take on the same characteristics as asearching for as many insights as one intervie- web survey, lacking the flexibility to uncoverwee can provide. This dilutes the research value, unrealized needs or insights. There can bewasting precious interview time with questions standard elements in each interview, butthat are not core to what the company is trying to good interviewers will understand the con-understand. text and research objectives and know how to maximize the time they have with eachResearch objectives should be created at the interviewee.strategic level, and must represent real choices • In-person interviews are often a desiredabout priorities in the research in order to maxi- option when conducting qualitative research.mize the value of the process. Sitting face to face allows an experienced interviewer to set the pace, read body lan-2. Determine interview approach guage, and delve deep into the interviewee’sThe interview approach must be thoroughly thought processes and emotions. Thoughthought through for a successful process. advantageous, this type of interview can be impractical to set up.• What confidentiality will be offered to the in- terviewees? Can they feel confident that it will • Telephone interviews are usually the most be respected? practical option. While some of the richness of an in-person interview is lost, an experi-• Will you ever reveal the sponsor of the re- enced interviewer will employ techniques to search? Why/why not? adapt and build rapport. Asking some easy - It may be desirable to reveal the sponsor in questions up front to gauge the interviewee’s certain circumstances, such as when specific frame of mind is a key tactic. It is worth not- feedback is sought on satisfaction. ing that some interviewees are more com- - The potential implications for the sponsor, fortable on the phone than in person. Some including their client or supplier relationships, may also be more likely to schedule a phone should be weighed. In some cases, it can be interview over an in-person interview, feeling beneficial to be known as the sponsor of qual- that it is less intrusive (especially since it can itative research, as it may build credibility. The Mezzanine Group 03
  • 4. SHOULD YOU USE A THIRD PARTY ORDO IT YOURSELF?For some purposes, a company or organization can conduct interviews itself, and gainuseful results. This is true particularly when there is a very specific information objectivedesired, there is little perceived risk in having the company reach out directly, and whereconfidentiality is not perceived to be important to the interviewees. Sometimes, as withclient satisfaction check-ins, there can be a relationship-building aspect to the companydoing this kind of research itself. Sponsor confidentiality: In order to obtain objective data on many topics (for instance, brand perceptions or competitive intelligence), it is critical for the sponsor of the research to be kept confidential, which is not possible if they are conducting the research themselves. This also avoids tipping the sponsor’s hand to competitors. Interviewee confidentiality: Only a third party can credibly state that confi- dentiality will be maintained. This encourages interviewees to be more forth- coming with genuine impressions and opinions, and therefore the interview results can be taken more seriously. Objectivity: To get the full value from a research process, a fresh set of eyes is often needed. An outsider can see patterns that insiders might miss, and insiders may shy away from tricky findings that a competent and professional external research or firm should be comfortable addressing. Capability: Designing, conducting, and analyzing the results of interviews are specialized research skills that most companies and organizations do not pos- sess. Interviewers must be able to fully grasp the business context and the research objectives, adjust to the styles of the interviewees, and adapt the interview questions to the responses received. Most companies and organiza- tions do not have these skills in-house. Network: An external firm may have a larger and more diverse network than the company or organization itself, as well as relationships with experts in vari- ous industries, which it can bring to bear on securing interviews. The Mezzanine Group 04
  • 5. WHAT IS REQUIRED TO CONDUCTINTERVIEW RESEARCH EFFECTIVELY?3. Determine who to talk to 4. Decide how to attract intervieweesWhile it may seem obvious, defining the inter- Providing an incentive can be extremely effective,view target often requires research to under- especially for the majority of individuals who will notstand exactly which person in an organization participate out of goodwill alone, and need to justifywill be able to give you the answers you are the time they spend with you. Which incentive to uselooking for. Identifying the relevant influenc- depends on your target population, so understandingers and decision makers will generate higher their motivation is key:quality and more impactful interviews. • Cash: This can be very effective, and is the most common approach when the sponsor is not beingClear research objectives will help ensure that revealed or if the target group does not have athe right people or roles are targeted. While strong affinity for the sponsor. (On occasion, anthe CEO may be the ultimate decision maker, interviewee may waive the fee or ask for it to behe or she isn’t necessarily the one whose donated to charity.)opinion matters most. For example, the of- • Sharing results: If the target group is known forfice manager may be the key user of a piece being interested in research or if they work in anof software, thus his or her satisfaction and industry where very little market research exists,recommendation may be the critical factor that offering to share some of the findings can be athe C-suite uses to make a decision. powerful incentive, particularly for a brief targeted interview. The time it takes to prepare this specificThe number of people to interview depends in report must be built into the project’s timing andlarge part on the population you are trying to budget.speak with. In our experience, approximatelytwelve to fifteen interviews per group or seg- • Goodwill: There are some interviewees who willment will generate valuable insights. Addi- respond without a specific incentive, but they aretional interviews per group can provide more typically only found among groups where volun-insights, but sometimes begin to get repetitive tary roles are common and there is a perceivedin terms of the major themes. If the group is shared interest in the success of the organizationhighly diverse, more interviews are neces- (such as professional associations). In this casesary to generate a sample of enough people it is critical to create a communication plan so thewith specific characteristics. To determine stakeholders are informed about the results of thehow many people to interview, it is important research project to which they have have hypotheses about the population andtheir perspectives. The Mezzanine Group 05
  • 6. WHAT IS REQUIRED TO CONDUCT INTERVIEW RESEARCH EFFECTIVELY?5. Design the interview guide • It is possible to have interviewees evaluate materials, such as a website or marketing ma-The interview guide translates the research terials, if they are sent via email or if the inter-objectives into language that will resonate view is conducted in person.with the interviewees, to elicit the maximumresponses from them. Some key points to re- 6. Identify and prepare interviewersmember when developing the interview guide: Capable interviewers are critical to research suc-• It is a guide, not a set of rules. In qualita- cess. The more strategic and sensitive the research, tive interviewing, a slavish adherence to the more experienced and skilled the interviewers the interview guide will result in missed must be. Regardless of the topic, the interviewers opportunities to follow up on interesting should be thoroughly briefed on the business or disclosures and inhibit a natural-feeling organizational context of the research, the back- conversation. ground of the interviewees, and the research ob-• The context of the interview, including jectives. They should be aware of which questions confidentiality and incentives, must be part are expected to elicit the richest information, and of both the beginning and the end of the which might be perceived as intrusive or sensitive. interview.• Start with more general, open-ended ques- Practice runs are recommended to gauge the flow tions to allow the interviewee to ease into of the interview and to ensure the interviewers are the discussion. familiar with the content. The first interview con- ducted can be observed by other interviewers, who• Place more complex or sensitive questions may provide helpful feedback as well as benefit toward the end of interviews so the inter- from seeing a preview. viewer has had a chance to build rapport and trust. Interview results must be captured, ideally verba-• Some questions should be open ended tim, for later analysis. Additional impressions of the to allow the interviewee to fill in the gaps. interviewers, such as the tone and emphasis of This also provides the interviewer with comments, should also be recorded. the latitude to probe deeper, perhaps with tailored follow-up questions.• Closed-ended and quantitative questions, such as rating a company’s service on a scale of 1 to 10, can be included, but avoid making these questions overly complex. The Mezzanine Group 06
  • 7. WHAT IS REQUIRED TO CONDUCTINTERVIEW RESEARCH EFFECTIVELY?7. Secure the interviews It often takes time, but with enough persistence, in- terviews can be secured with even the most elusiveThe methodology for requesting interviews will individuals. In some industries, people will responddepend entirely on the target population and the to a request immediately; in others, it can take upincentive being offered. A communications plan to twenty touch points to secure the interview. Flex-for securing the interviews should be developed, ibility should be built into the timeline to allow forincluding a number of different methods to reach variations in responsiveness.out to and persuade potential interviewees. • Email versus phone calls: Typically thereFor an interviewer, leveraging one’s profession- should be email contact with telephone follow-al network can be very effective and will result in up, but this should be adapted based on the tar-insights that are richer and deeper than a cold get since the interviewee has already estab-lished trust in the interviewer. Online networks • Messaging: The initial invitation should belike LinkedIn can be enormously helpful in draw- carefully crafted in order to interest the potentialing from professional connections. interviewees. It should provide clarity as to the interview’s purpose and expectations and theIndustry associations or networking organiza- incentive offered for participation.tions are helpful in finding people from specific • Timing: Some industries or professions areindustries or with specific designations. Web- known for having particular times of the day,based research into certain companies or sec- or days of the week, when they are easier totors can also be used to identify potential inter- reach.viewees. • Seasonality: Not all industries are seasonal, but it’s important to be aware of those that are. Trying to reach a retailer during the Christmas LEVERAGING ONE’S PROFES- season is probably not the best approach. SIONAL NETWORK WILL RE- SULT IN INSIGHTS THAT ARE RICHER AND DEEPER THAN A COLD CALL. The Mezzanine Group 07
  • 8. WHAT IS REQUIRED TO CONDUCT INTERVIEW RESEARCH EFFECTIVELY?8. Monitor and course correct as required • Look for overall trends as well as influential standalone interviews.It is important to evaluate the quality of the – Especially with industry expert interviews, orquestions being asked and the consistency research objectives looking at trends or futureand efficacy of the answers being provided. developments, a lone voice can provide valu-Comparing notes between interviewers and able insights.observing interviews, when practical, helps en-sure that everyone is following protocol. It also • Triangulate the results using multiple sources:allows interviewers to share tips about what isworking with the target group. Every industry is – For really tricky topics, when no singleunique, and the approach needs to be tailored interviewee can give you the answer youto the specific elements and idiosyncrasies of seek, findings can be triangulated from mul-the target industry. tiple interviews at different levels of seniority. Sometimes secondary research can also help9. Perform systematic and rigorous with triangulation. analysis – Use judgement and common sense:Occasionally, interview results are reported A key skill of an experienced qualitative inter-back without any analysis provided. The ques- viewer is common sense; the ability to listentions asked are listed, with responses cap- to an answer and know whether it is reliable.tured in point form. However, a huge part of In the analysis stage, the original interviewerthe value in conducting interview research lies can add this form of analysis to go beyond thein taking a systematic, intelligent approach pure content or quotes from the analyzing the results to understanding the Findings should be analyzed based on the re-implications of the research findings. search objectives, but serendipitous findingsAn effective methodology for analyzing the should also be reported. These are findings thatresults of interview research includes these were not part of the original brief, but emergedsteps: through the interviews and should not be ignored. Implications can be developed based on these• Review single interviews as a whole to see findings that help facilitate discussions about the comments in context. next steps that should be taken based on the re-• Compare answers to the same question search conducted. across the population and by segment (where applicable).• Think about what you would expect to hear from certain questions. Is that what you heard? What didn’t you hear that might have been anticipated? The Mezzanine Group 08
  • 9. COMMON PITFALLS ANDSOLUTIONSThere are a number of common mistakes in qualitative interview research, and these are some sug-gested methods to either address or avoid them.PITFALL: LEADING THE WITNESS • While it can be tempting to try to get the interviewee to confirm your hypothesis, this undermines the process, jeopardizing the quality of results.SOLUTION: REMAIN NEUTRAL; CONSIDER USING A THIRD PARTY • Questions should be open-ended and neutral, giving interviewees as much latitude as possible to speak about what is important and critical to them. In the best interviews, the interviewee does most of the talking and is helped along by the interviewer only through questions such as, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “How did you arrive at that conclusion?” • Where the interview topics are sensitive, or where there are concerns that the results may not be taken as objective, consider using a third party to increase the credibility of results.PITFALL: TAKING WHAT INTERVIEWEES SAY AT FACE VALUE • Taking interviewees’ comments entirely at face value is not always advisable. Their level of credibility and authority in dealing with a particular topic, as well as their candour, need to be evaluated carefully by interviewers. This is particularly important in industries where suspicion is high and competitive posturing is suspected, or where jargon is commonly used.SOLUTION: BE SKEPTICAL • One of the most important jobs of an interviewer is to maintain a healthy level of skepticism throughout the interview. Answers should be probed deeply, especially if the credibility of the interviewee isn’t well known. Interviewers should listen for what is not being said as well as probe to understand interviewees’ potential motivations and perspectives on the interview itself. • It is absolutely critical to ask interviewees to define their terms. This may be accomplished simply by asking, “What do you mean by that?” to avoid inaccurate assumptions. The Mezzanine Group 09
  • 10. COMMON PITFALLS AND SOLUTIONSPITFALL: INTERVIEWER FATIGUE • Each interview must be approached as a blank slate with optimism and positive energy. But if the same key themes keep coming up, the interviewer can lose their edge and end up leading the witness or moving too quickly through the interview.SOLUTION: CHANGE IT UP • To guard against leading the witness, one successful tactic is for interviewers to periodically observe each other and provide feedback. Additionally, alternating interviewers can help create better research findings by ensuring that each interview is approached with fresh eyes. These tactics require more than one skilled interviewer, which may necessitate using a third party if internal resources are not available.PITFALL: NOT RECOGNIZING OPPORTUNITIES • Even an experienced interviewer can fail to recognize when an interviewee is entering into an area that can be expanded upon and probed.SOLUTION: PREPARATION AND INTERVIEWER SKILL • Since every industry has its own nuances, an extensive briefing should be provided to each interviewer before they begin conducting interviews so they have a understanding of industry dynamics and research objectives. Choose an experienced interviewer who can put the inter- viewee at ease, build credibility, adapt to the flow of the interview, and ask different questions or probe more deeply on specific areas based on the answers provided. The Mezzanine Group 10
  • 11. COMMON PITFALLS ANDSOLUTIONSPITFALL: SAMPLE BIAS • When interviewees are from an internal group, such as employees, clients, or members, specific individuals may be selected for interviews who are not representative of the entire population.SOLUTION: RANDOM SAMPLING • Random sampling, or randomly selecting interviewees from certain categories, such as large clients, small client, lost clients, new clients, etc., will avoid this kind of bias in the sample.PITFALL: RETICENCE AND SUSPICION • Some industries or workplaces are characterized by high levels of suspicion, and it may be particularly difficult to secure interviews or obtain rich information from them.SOLUTION: TRIANGULATE AND BUILD TRUST • Speak with multiple people within an industry — people likely won’t tell you about their own company, but they will talk about what they observe in the marketplace. • Use a third party research firm so there is confidence that confidentiality will be maintained. • If the group of interviewees is accessible enough, perform regular research and report the results to build trust. The Mezzanine Group 11
  • 12. CONCLUSIONINTERVIEW RESEARCH IS A POWER- Taking the time and dedicating the proper resourcesFUL TOOL TO UNLOCK INSIGHTS to this process will make it possible to obtain a de-FROM CUSTOMERS, SUPPLIERS, US- tailed picture of various stakeholders’ perspectivesERS, MEMBERS, AND COMPETITORS. while providing the opportunity to uncover unex-HOWEVER, IT TAKES SIGNIFICANT pected findings which may have strategic implica-SKILL AND MANAGEMENT TO REAL- tions. Consider carefully whether the value of theseIZE ITS FULL VALUE. conversations can be best realized by using internal resources, or whether a third party should be en- gaged to ensure the quality of the results. The Mezzanine Group 12
  • 13. WANT MORE INFO?Sign up to receive regular email updates at or for our blog RSS feed at The Mezzanine Group 13
  • 14. ABOUT THE MEZZANINE GROUP The Mezzanine Group is a Toronto-based Business to Business strategy and marketing company. For more than ten years, we’ve helped executives in small and mid-sized companies, large enterprises and professional associations achieve growth through effective strategic plans and marketing implementation. We know growth - we were named one of the fastest growing companies in Canada for four years by PROFIT Magazine.The Mezzanine 416 598