When not having a plan takes you further

Ali Pugh

February 2018

When not having a plan takes you further

We run an annual ‘customer listening’ session for a debt management company client of ours.  We bring customers together and ask them to talk about their lives – both in general and as a customer of our client – while the senior team watches in the back room.

The aim of the sessions is always the same; to better understand customers.  That’s it, nothing more specific.  We never have anything to review, evaluate, develop or test.  The client team just wants to come along and hear their customers speak so they can improve the way it serves & engages with customers.

This presents a challenge when it comes to designing the guide – every year I fear we will not fill the 90 mins we have with groups; that the respondents will run out of things to talk about & I will run out things to ask.  Every year my fear is proved to be unfounded.

And two things struck me after the latest event.  One, what a luxury it is as a moderator not to have to haul the groups along with you as you try to get through all of the questions & materials you need to in the time allowed.  Instead, you have time for everyone to be heard, for respondents to ask each other questions, to allow them to digress for there’s nothing for them to digress from – it’s all insight into how they tick.

My discussion guide is usually just one page, with a list of prompts in case the discussion flags.  It never does.  And rarely is it referred to.

And that brings me to number two – how much respondents reveal about themselves a) when they are given time to become fully comfortable with each other and then b) realise you’re not testing products, concepts or advertising on them, or moving them on to the next topic at a brisk speed.  They are just there to have their voices heard.  The life of a debt management customer is not without issue.  The customer is obviously in debt, sometimes deeply so and, at some point, this debt has got out of control – which is why they become customers of our client.  And we know these situations can bring all sorts of challenges including mental health & marital issues.

Giving the respondents time & space to share their stories means we hear about depression, divorces, feelings of guilt & shame.  All of which can be built into how our client handles its customers – showing empathy and an appreciation of their situation.  This is reflected by the customers who talk about really being listened to & feeling their situation is understood.
Now I’m not suggesting this approach should be applied to every project – we need to get feedback on advertising & communications, new products or concepts, brand positioning and so on.  And with pressures on budgets, focus groups tend to be rather full these days to maximise value for money.

But the depth of insight we got during this brief exploration into their lives shows the value of building as much time & space as is possible into groups – to allow respondents the time to feel comfortable with each other before sharing their life stories.  So whether this takes the form of warm-up exercises that require respondents to reveal a little more of themselves than just the standard name, job, family, hobbies etc, or ensuring there is a little ‘spare’ in the discussion guide so the moderator doesn’t have to rush respondents at sensitive moments, there are certainly principles we can adopt from this experience.