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Riffs on Marketing

The Case for Qualitative Research: 12 Quick Tips For Effective Phone Interviews


In this age of big data, AI and endless analytics, it’s alluring to think the world of numbers is a panacea…a cure-all for every marketing challenge.  Well, in my humble opinion, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  While there’s room for quantitative research and all kinds of clever algorithms, we can’t forget how much we can learn from simply speaking to another human being.  I know – radical, right?

I’m a big believer in qualitative research for the simple reason that it helps us quickly learn the landscape of a market, its distribution channels, competitors, buying processes and key decision factors.  Last time I checked, understanding those elements were vital to organic growth and profitability. 

Just Talk

It’s hard to know the subtleties of market segments or purchasing behavior from an internet survey.  How would you even know what to ask?  On a scale of one to ten how satisfied are you with your current supplier?  Not at all?  Why not?  Usually the secret is not black and white, yes or no.  The truth is a series of interlocking issues that can only be teased out with questions, answers, more questions and more answers.  If selling were so simple, there wouldn’t be thousands of books published on the topic every month.  Truth is, selling is hard.  Marketing is hard.  And an excellent way to make it easier is to talk to people.  Talk to your customers.  Talk to your prospects.  Talk to your distributors.

I think one of the reasons quantitative research has become so popular is because it lets marketers off the hook.  Interviewing – either on the phone or in person – doesn’t come naturally to most people.  They get nervous, they’re not sure what to ask, it takes time, it takes effort and most marketers I know think they’re not great at it.  Cue Survey Monkey!  “Phew, that solves that one.  No need to bother anyone at work.  They wouldn’t have time to talk to me anyway.”  Or, “let’s hire a data scientist! We’ll build a model to tell us how to serve (upsell) our customers.”  Don’t get me wrong – there’s incredible value to these tools.  Used in combination with other facets of research and marketing, they’re powerful and indispensable.  But they’re not the Holy Grail and not to be use in isolation.  Quant should not stand alone.

Quality Defined

The official definition of the adjective “qualitative” is “relating to, measuring, or measured by the quality of something rather than its quantity.”  The word originates from the latin word qualitas.  In market research, there is secondary research (formerly conducted in a library and now on the web) and primary research, which involves directly contacting individuals through new, custom research.  Primary research is divided into qualitative and quantitative research.  Technically, quantitative research simply involves contacting more people, mainly so the results can be statistically significant.  Qualitative research is not focused on the number of interviews, but on obtaining unique content and insight.  These interviews are typically longer, more in-depth and sometimes exploratory.  Qualitative work often precede quantitative surveys in order to understand a market better and establish the best questions to ask of a larger group.

Qualitative research can take many forms.  Some examples include focus groups (multiple customers together), group interviews (multiple people from the same customer), one-on-one interviews (either conducted over the phone or in person), customer intercepts (typically in retail) and so on.  This research can be highly structured or be more open-ended and freeform.  There are methodologies involving metaphor elicitation designed to draw out deep-rooted beliefs and motivations.  Originally popularized by Gerald Zaltzman at Harvard, these approaches are even being applied in the B2B space by specialty firms, such as Beatrix out of Boston.  There are so many ways to conduct qualitative research.  The main point here is to use one or more of them – always, at all times.  Just put your brain in learning mode and dive in, whether you’re a novice or expert.  Honestly, it’s pretty hard to screw up.

Pick Up The Phone

One of my personal favorite qualitative research methods is telephone interviews.  Phone interviews don’t require the extra time and expense of travel and result in almost as much – if not more – insight. I started doing this type of interview early in my career.  It was a full-time job for a few years and I figure I conducted about 4,000 interviews that averaged about 45 minutes each.  That’s 3,000 hours of interviews and I’ve invested many more hours since then.  I’m pretty good at by now – I better be. 

There are a few key principles to doing these well.  I’ve outlined a few them below and am more than willing to talk with anyone about how best to conduct them.  The more people that are comfortable with this approach, the better customers will be heard, the better companies will serve them and the better our collective economy will be.  Who knew that a few phone conversations could drive the global standard of living?  Don’t sell short the power of what any of us do.

11 Quick Tips

So, how does this work?  Here are a few simple things to keep in mind for phone interviews:

1.       Have an objective:  understand exactly what you’re trying to learn from the research or else you’re on a fishing expedition.  Be specific.

2.       Write a discussion guide:  this is a list of questions you’d like to cover at some time during the conversation.  It’s not a questionnaire.

3.       Understand your target:  think about homing in on a market segment or specific distribution channel for the clearest, actionable insight.  Be focused.

4.       Make a call list:  if you can get introductions so someone’s expecting your call, that’s the best;  otherwise, research titles and names.  Then give it a shot.

5.       Explain what you’re doing:  tell the person exactly what you’re trying to understand and bring him or her into your challenge.  They’ll want to help.

6.       Highlight their expertise:  Be sure to explain you’re talking to them because you know they’re an expert and will have valuable insight.  They’ll open up.

7.       Let them lead:  Listen to where the conversation is going and follow that instead of imposing the order of your list of questions.  Be flexible.

8.       Dig down deep:  probe to understand what’s behind certain answers so you truly understand what’s driving decisions.  Ask “why’ continually.

9.       Ask open-ended questions:  You’ll be surprised how people will answer, but they often pause to think about it before saying anything.  Wait for their response.

10.   Ask quantitative questions:  Yes, you can – and should – get some numbers within a qualitative interview…like sales volume or product mix.  They’ll usually tell you.

11.   Ask their advice:  Ask them what they would do if they were in your shoes….how would they try to penetrate the market and sell more.  They’re usually right.

12.   Challenge them:  Before you hang up, ask them something like “what didn’t I ask you that I should have asked you?”  Make them think.

The Process

I used to take notes of my calls on notebook paper and now I use my iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil and the Good Notes app.  I don’t record my interviews, but if you do, get permission from the person you’re interviewing.  Believe it or not, I always build in an equal amount of time to process an interview as it takes to conduct the interview.  Processing, for me, often involves writing the highlights and some verbatim comments into an Excel spreadsheet.  The sheet is organized with the list of interviewees in rows and different topics in columns across the sheet.  That way, when it comes time to understand how the whole group responded to a certain question, you can simply scan down a single column to see the results in one place.

I usually draw diagrams during and after interviews to represent distribution or decision flows.  For example, can you map out how a product gets from the manufacturer to the end user, including all the steps in between?  Can you highlight key influencers, specify time or delineate how much margin each part of the value chain extracts?  Can you compare product or service options in the marketplace, summarizing the pros and cons of each in the eyes of those you interviewed?

Find Your Way

Why do we conduct research anyway?  We do it to improve our decision making.  We do it to increase our odds of success.  The more information we have, the better we can compete.  The more insight we gain, the better we can serve.  Without research, we’re flying blind.  Worse yet, since we usually trust our experience, instincts and sales force feedback, we think we’re flying with perfect vision…while we’re flying in the wrong direction.  Research helps us get our bearings back.

Circling back to the benefits of qualitative research, consider how fluid it can be.  Quantitative research is often very rigid, though it can be an excellent measurement tool for opinions on importance and satisfaction.  But when we’re in learning mode, we need the ability to go “off script” to ask direct, customized questions that go to the heart of the matter.  We can determine the nuances of the buying process.  And if I’ve learned anything from over 3,000 hours of interviewing, it’s that buying is based on nuances.


So, if you want to know how things really work in your industry, instead of thinking big, think little.  Little data.  Conversations with real people who have real jobs and control real budgets.  Discussions that flow freely as if among friends, but hit hard topics that impact sales.  Talks with marketplace players who make the value chain tick.  In my view, there’s no better way to understand a company, its products, its channels and its segments than to simply talk to them.  Not in a “rate-this-on-a-scale” way, but in a “help me understand this” way.  I promise you’ll be amazed at the results.  Who knows, you might even become a research evangelist like me, preaching the virtues of quality over quantity. 


Dave Loomis