When to talk to customers

When it comes to getting deep strategic insights about customers, what’s more effective—quantitative or qualitative research? Forget the long questionnaire and large survey samples, says strategic planning consultant Graham Kenny in Harvard Business Review. In-depth interviews with a small set of people, often as few as a dozen, will give you more insight.

Customer conversations are better at obtaining what he calls strategic factors for any business: the key criteria customers use to choose you over a competitor. Open-ended conversations provide:

• Higher-quality information

• Access to the customer’s mind—how they think and make decisions

• Deeper understanding of the customer’s needs, wants, pain

Kenny’s talks with customers center on one key question: “What criteria do you weigh in deciding to engage us versus our competitors?”

He’s tested this approach, asking management teams what they believe their strategic factors are. Management doesn’t provide as “crisp” as do customers, and they often include factors that don’t matter to customers.

“When it comes to obtaining customer input, executives often think a multiple-choice survey will be the most cost-effective option. They have their place... [but] don’t let them become an excuse for not talking to the customer.”

Graham Kenny, Harvard Business Review

Talking to one customer never yields all the strategic factors. Every customer’s experience is different. But in Kenny’s experience, talking to several—often as few as 12—always results in the complete set.

As for how many interviews you’ll need to conduct, you’ll know you’ve collected all the factors when you no longer hear anything new. This “saturation point” seems to naturally occur at 12 people.