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Don't Forget the Qualitative Research - a CX Case Study

Staying on top of customer expectations – and delivering experiences that align to them – is a constant challenge for product and brand decision-makers.

Most companies turn to the tried-and-true customer survey as a barometer for discerning customer needs.  Quick, convenient, and inexpensive, this quantitative tool has a rightful place in the research arsenal.

But the occasional survey cannot be a company’s only customer listening post. Best in class organizations routinely dive much deeper to understand customers through a variety of qualitative techniques, such as one-to-one interviews, focus groups, or in-situation observation to name just a few. Regular qualitative research efforts provide an invaluable context for understanding the functional needs of customers as well as the more hidden, but equally important emotional needs. In fact, if qualitative techniques don’t play a key role informing your marketing and CX strategy, the decisions you are making aren’t nearly as impactful as they could be.

Qual and Quant – You Need Both

Let’s take a step back to briefly recap the difference between qualitative and quantitative tools. In a nutshell, if you are interested in measuring something, or testing a hypothesis, or drawing generalized conclusions, quantitative techniques like surveys will get you there. For example, you can run a quick survey to find out that 35% of your customers are unhappy with your product or service. But there is no way to know what’s at the root of that unhappiness.

Qualitative tools, on the other hand, can provide the all-important 'why', and sometimes even the elusive 'how' you should change. They offer color and context for why the 35% aren’t happy and what to do about it. Qualitative techniques provide descriptive, contextual information about characteristics that are more difficult to define and measure, but often at the very heart of customer needs, which can make all the difference in improving the experiences you deliver.

A CX Case Study in the Health Insurance Industry:

A Cookie Leads to a Re-designed Customer Experience

Consider the mid-western regional health plan that for years relied only on periodic customer surveys to get a read on customer satisfaction. In the face of increased competition and decreasing satisfaction scores, the company finally embarked on a deep-dive customer needs assessment to figure out what consumers wanted in the context of their relationship with a health plan.

People were recruited from a cross section of the plan membership to participate in 1.5 hour, one-on-one interviews. And the health plan’s leadership observed the interviews in real time. Participants were asked to bring pictures clipped from magazines or other sources that illustrated how they wished to feel about their health plan. Interviewees enthusiastically embraced the exercise, bringing images of safety nets, family, and sports teammates to suggest the notions of support and partnership.

“But the most memorable image was a picture of a chocolate chip cookie that symbolized for one woman the feelings of security and familiarity that her mom’s chocolate chip cookie recipe evoked for her,”

recalled the director of corporate communications. “In fact, it was such a moving interview, the chocolate chip cookie became the internal symbol of our commitment to improving the customer experience, making an appearance at every single internal planning meeting we had,” he added.

The overall takeaway from the qualitative interviews was that members wanted to feel “understood, assured and unconcerned” when dealing with their health plan. And the eye-opening interviews, enhanced by personal images, convinced leadership to make a full-scale commitment to overhauling the member experience. To ensure consistency and guidance, it was decided that all experiential changes would be anchored in the three watch words, understood, assured and unconcerned, which members had collectively signaled they wanted to feel when dealing with their health plan.

Speaking Plainly

One of the first experience improvement efforts was a company-wide focus on simplifying and improving oral and written communication with members. “It was a unique opportunity to look at every written communication the company sent out – enrollment letters, explanation of benefits, claim letters, denial letters – and rewrite them to make them more clear, direct and understandable,” commented the director of communications. One thing the health plan learned is that it was simply sending out too many letters that used too much jargon. Of 375 communications, 200 were ultimately eliminated and re-written to an 8th grade reading level.

Another improvement was a monthly buzz phrase instituted in the call center. Group leaders chose a new phrase or statement each month that conveyed the sentiment of feeling understood, assured and unconcerned, and call center reps were encouraged to work it into their phone conversations. One buzz phrase, for example was, "I want to make this simple for you." When a rep was overheard using the phrase of the month, they became eligible to win a gift card.

While the health plan instituted many experiential improvements, and is still working at it, the point is that it all started with the commitment to a qualitative research effort. An effort that not only provided a clear path for why the company needed to make customer experience improvements, but how it should begin that process.

Have the experience improvements paid off? Resoundingly. After the first full year of the Speaking Plainly efforts, the call center enjoyed a 4.59 satisfaction rating out of 5, the best in the company’s history. And the company’s overall CAHPS rating (Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems) rose by several points.

Qualitative techniques can add a unique range and versatility to any organization’s research mix. The color and context they provide can make all the difference in guiding meaningful improvements to your product and brand decisions as well as your customer experiences. Phase 5 offers a full suite of qualitative tools, including the one-to-one interviews using images mentioned in this post. Contact us for more information about how we might help your organization leverage the power of qualitative techniques to become more customer-centric.

Written by Suzie Goan

Suzie Goan is a Manager of Qualitative Research and CX at Phase 5. She has over 15 years of experience leading consumer insights and CX projects for Fortune 1000 clients in financial services, healthcare, retail and hospitality, with a prime area of interest in research that taps into unconscious emotion through metaphor, images and storytelling. Suzie has written about CX in Marketing Management, MIT Sloan Management Review and Quality Management. She is based in Minneapolis, MN and holds degrees in Journalism and English from the University of Oregon.