Read this article at: Quirks Marketing Research Review

Evoke customer stories during video focus groups with four simple questions

Published in the October 2020 issue

Tom Neveril offers tips for adding the richness that stories bring to your video-based qualitative research.

Editor's note: Tom Neveril is founder of Storybrand Consulting, a Los Angeles research firm.

In the wake of the pandemic, marketers should invite their customers to video focus groups and ask them to share their stories. The popularity of Zoom, Skype, etc., has made this easier than ever. And people are eager to talk – and listen to others – about how life has changed.

Customer stories are valuable to marketers not only for their inspirational power but also because they reveal behavior and decision-making. When we understand what drives current behaviors, we can better predict what will drive future behaviors in the context of shopping and/or buying.

For example, years ago, a frequent business traveler shared this brief story with me:

“So, for many weeks I would always go to this hotel on Monday and leave on Wednesday. I got so tired of standing in line to check in. Then one day when I arrived, I left the car with the valet and when I walked inside, one of the staff greeted me, handed me a room key and said, ‘Your room is ready for you.’”

This story was one of several that helped guide the client’s development of an award-winning marketing campaign.

In this article, I’ll lay out a simple method for gathering stories like this in video focus groups. But first, let’s start with a useful definition of a story.

Stories have four elements. I believe all stories are built using plot, conflict, surprise and lesson. These elements are present in every story, from the grandest novels to the ancient myths to the story above.

Plot is a sequence of causally-related events. In the above example, the business traveler was made to wait in line repeatedly. This caused him to complain (I confirmed this later in the research session), which caused the hotel to give him personalized service.

We are all constantly “plotting” along as we have consumer experiences. Plots are important because they reveal needs, which are often different from what people say about their needs.

Secondly, stories have conflict. Conflict is created when satisfying one person’s needs appears to prevent the satisfaction of another person’s needs. (This also applies to groups of people.) In the example, the traveler needs to avoid waiting in line to be checked in. His need comes into conflict with the hotel staff’s need to use a standardized guest check-in procedure.

Conflict is important because it reveals the depth of our needs. For example, if streamlined check-in was a “must have” for the traveler, he may have switched to another hotel. And from the hotel staff’s perspective, if satisfying the traveler wasn’t a top priority, they may have continued to make him wait like the previous check-ins.

Stories must also contain the element of surprise. Surprise occurs when reality defies an expectation about life. When listening to a story, keep in mind that it’s not necessary that we in the audience are surprised. Rather, it must be plausible that either of the opposing people has been surprised.

A surprise or a plot twist is important because doing the unexpected shows creative problem-solving. This is true in all novels, movies, TV and even customer stories. Creativity is what makes all storytelling so engaging and powerful.

In the traveler’s story, the hotel didn’t speed up the check-in process by adding desks and staff. It took the creative, unconventional route of eliminating the desk check-in process altogether. When marketers demonstrate creative problem-solving, the halo of creativity enhances the brand’s appeal and memorability.

The fourth and final element is lesson, also called theme or moral. Lessons are essentially the larger implications from the story. Lessons are important because they show us better ways to live our lives.

A customer story lesson needs to be important to the storyteller but it doesn’t need to be philosophical or complex. For example, the simple lesson of the traveler’s story might be that personalized service makes business travel less stressful.

So how do you evoke insightful – and engaging – stories from participants in a video focus group? Ask these four questions.

Please tell me about a time when you were surprised during your experience with _____ (brand or product or category).

Rationale: The fast track to evoking good stories is by asking participants to recall moments of surprise. Surprises are markers for stories because they’re the easiest element to recall. We tend to remember those moments when we suddenly realize that we are – or are not – going to have our needs satisfied.

What burns them into our memory is the intensity of our emotion. The more important the need and the greater the conflict, the more intensely we feel the joy or disappointment of a surprise.

If the surprises you gather are about minutiae rather than epic struggles, that’s not a waste of time. For example, if our traveler was really surprised to see that one of the guest room amenities was a hair dryer, that’s unlikely to be a marker for a useful story. However, when people start sharing their surprising experiences, they often trigger recollections from other participants, which may be useful stories.

Please explain what happened including the actions you took throughout your experience.

Rationale: Again, it’s rare that a participant will recollect a fully-formed story after just being asked for surprises without further probing. If they do recall a surprise, explore the surrounding perceptions and actions. How and why did they come across the surprising event? You may uncover an emotional, important plot for a story.

If your participants are not able to think of any surprises, use this question to uncover plots during a specific part of their customer journey. Explore any emotional experiences or interactions with the brand. It might jar loose a surprise they’d forgotten about and perhaps a complete story.

Please explain a bit more about who was opposing you and what actions they took.

Rationale: Sometimes a focus group participant will only talk about their needs and the actions they took. To confirm the presence of a story, we need to understand the forces that opposed them.

Conflict or opposition always needs to be from others who have their own priorities. So, for example, if a guest can’t check into a hotel quickly because of a hurricane, that’s not helpful for marketers. But if the reason is that the customer service associate wants to maintain hotel security, that’s a strong antagonist.

Sometimes the opposition to a customer is simply the status quo established by the leading marketers within an industry. People often accept “the way it is” in some categories – until a brand uses creativity to innovate and disrupt it. Uber is a great example.

Have you learned any important lesson from your experience?

Rationale: Asking for lessons is often a helpful probe after people have already explained plot and conflict. Sometimes recalling lessons learned will help explain previous expectations and bring the surprise out of the story.

If the preceding questions haven’t netted any stories, asking about lessons learned – particularly “hard lessons” – can feel like a fresh angle to participants. Instead of requiring participants to jump to a point in the past, exploring lessons requires them to start from where they are today and figure out how they got there. They can retrace their steps back to those pivotal experiences. And every so often you’ll find a participant who can brilliantly articulate a lesson which might also be an insight for your business.

A few tips

Here are a few practical tips. First, remember to respect the technical capabilities of videoconferencing technology. The moderator should ask questions in round-robin style where each participant (maximum of six) speaks for a minute or so. This dynamic works well in videoconferencing, especially when the software features the speaker’s image prominently among the other participants (like Zoom).

Second, stack the deck in your favor. If possible, give your respondents an experiential homework assignment before the video focus group. The purpose of this is usually to stir up older memories by having new, analogous experiences.

For example, if your brand involves food preparation, ask your participants to make a dish or watch a cooking show. If you’re in the car business, ask them to take a test drive. The sights, sounds, products, scents and/or flavors of this new experience might trigger recall of past experiences. Of course, the experiential homework assignment could also provide new stories.

However, if it includes buying a product or service, consider reimbursing participants for a limited amount of the expense or time involved. This will build anticipation prior to the focus group. And it will help the participants hit the ground running as they start their storytelling session.

A few years ago I was hired to investigate how people with chronic diseases make a potentially life-or-death decision: selecting their medical group. As I sat down to moderate some focus groups, I was expecting the patients to explain how they identified the most highly skilled doctors. Instead, they seemed more interested in exchanging stories about subjects like office staff expertise, responsiveness to e-mail and ease of making appointments.

It seems our demand for one-click intuitive service like Amazon’s has swept into every consumer category.

So, how can market researchers help marketers make their brands easier to use, if not effortless?

The challenge for market researchers is that effort is a highly complex and subjective concept to investigate. One person’s “simple” is another person’s “hassle.” Emotions and attitudes can substantially distort self-perceptions of effort. And expectations shaped by experience or familiarity can greatly influence whether someone is successful when applying effort. So it’s an important topic but it’s often difficult to identify exactly what will make a brand easier to use.

Fortunately, these research challenges can be overcome. We can use our analytical skills to break down the concept of effort and then explore it with precise questions.

Here then, is a practical approach to help marketers diagnose customer effort problems or opportunities.

Four Types

Whether the brand interactions are related to shopping, transactions, usage or service, people use the following four types of effort, often simultaneously:

  • Time-related effort: Real and perceived time spent waiting, transacting, consuming and interacting.
  • Physical effort: Activity or restriction of activity, including enduring physical discomfort or unpleasant environments.
  • Rational thinking effort: Cognitive functions including organization, analysis and problem-solving.
  • Emotion-control effort: Self-management of emotions, particularly negative emotions.

Precise questions asked during in-depth interviewing are necessary to fully explore the components of customer effort. Moderated usability methodologies are ideal for exploring time-related, physical and rational thinking. Process diaries, photos, videos and other digital qualitative tools can assist in gathering emotional effort.

Here are some key qualitative probing areas for each of the four components of effort.

1. Uncover time-related effort by probing the benefits of customer attention. In researching time-related effort, it’s critical to probe customers’ perceptions about the benefits of giving their attention. If people perceive a continual benefit from giving their attention, time flies for them. If people don’t feel a continual benefit from their attention, time crawls.

Virtual hold technology is a great example of the efficient use of customer attention. It provides inbound callers with the option of being called back at a specific time when a customer service representative is available. Compared to having to wait on hold – and having to maintain attention to silence, hold music or messaging – virtual hold allows the customer to divert all of their attention elsewhere. Ultimately, the same period of delay requires far less time-related effort.

The ideal probes into the area of customer attention include, “What was the focus of your attention (over a given interaction period)?” This should be followed by, “How did you benefit, if at all, from this use of your attention?”

It’s important to clarify the direct benefits from their continuous attention (to hold music, for example). If participant answers indicate little continuous direct benefit, this is clearly an interaction type that requires improvement.

2. Uncover rational thinking effort by exploring choice and control. The act of choosing requires analysis or rational thinking effort. If the choice among options is difficult, it requires more rational thinking effort. Likewise, if customers can easily differentiate between the choices, then the decision is simple and the rational thinking effort is minimal.

We normally think of choice as a good thing. But the reality is, people do not want to think in order to make a brand choice. Instead, they want just enough differentiating information so that they can make the choice quickly, without having to learn or analyze additional information. Put another way, they want effortless access to their preferences.

Issues of choice are ideally explored during or shortly after actual choices are made. The ideal probe for exploring choice is, “What additional information, if any, would you like to have at this moment?” And this should be followed by, “What information here, if any, is distracting you during (this task/interaction)?”

If the customer has a clear idea of what they need, this indicates some additional rational thinking effort. If no additional information is required, no information is distracting and choices are made quickly, then the customer is finding the experience easy.

Another type of answer to the above questions can reveal rational thinking overload. This occurs when a customer needs so much information, they don’t know which line of inquiry will yield helpful information. Nor do they know which type of information is distracting.

Typically the solution involves learning about the customer’s ultimate needs and then presenting customized analysis and recommendations. If a customer experiences this scenario and requires intervention, they’ve likely been overwhelmed with rational thinking effort.

3. Uncover emotional effort by probing the issue of respect and fairness. People perceive unnecessary emotional effort when they feel disrespected or insulted. Perceived attacks fire defense mechanisms and require additional energy to maintain concentration and composure.

It’s important to note that perceptions drive emotional responses. In reality, the same exact product or service experience can be perceived differently. And these different perceptions can lead to vastly different levels of emotion-control effort. For example, there is no question that Southwest Airlines’ positive reputation changes perceptions. A smiling flight attendant effectively lowers the emotional effort of fliers who might otherwise feel disrespected by the same delays and problems experienced on other airlines.

To explore emotional effort, learn more about the ways in which the customer experience makes them feel valued and respected, if at all. The ideal probe is, “During this interaction, at any point did you feel particularly respected or disrespected? Please explain.” Follow-up probes might include, “How did (the brand) ... recognize you as a unique person? …express empathy for you?” If the answers indicate a lack of respect, there is a substantial problem with emotion-control effort.

Another helpful probe area is fairness in transactions with customers. Customers want brands to set accurate expectations for how much money and effort, including time, is required from them. If they buy a brand that requires more time, physical effort or rational thinking than their expectations, they feel cheated. Feeling cheated then triggers emotion-control effort, as people react emotionally and think about how they’ll respond to the situation.

The ideal probe to explore fairness is, “Were you expecting to spend time this way when you first started using the brand?” (If not) “How is this experience different from those initial expectations?” If the responses suggest effort was underestimated, this indicates a substantial problem for that brand interaction.

4. Uncover physical effort by exploring complexity and comfort of all brand related activity.

Of course usability testing and process diaries are ideal for recording the reality of behavior. Important probes for the perceptions of physical effort would include, “Is the (physical activity/task) simple, complex or somewhere in between? Please explain.”

Another key area to probe is comfort: “What, if anything, about the (activity/experience) made you physically comfortable or uncomfortable? Please explain.”

Be sure to investigate tasks that are indirectly related to a brand interaction. For example, auto insurance customers are typically required to interact with representatives in order to obtain an estimate for repairing vehicle damage. Here’s the problem: the actual conversation with the damage appraiser might require only 5-10 minutes. However, all of the tasks required to arrange the meeting and physically be present are considerable for the typical customer: absence from another activity, looking up directions, driving, finding parking, exposure to potentially bad weather, etc.

Fortunately, customers will give brands plenty of credit for anticipating and addressing these gray areas of physical effort responsibility. For example, an insurance company client of mine recently started allowing customers to submit photos of their minor vehicle damage via text message – and skip the appraiser meeting – in order to obtain an estimate. Customers consistently responded with sincere appreciation for the elimination of their physical effort in working with the company.

Identify the Scenarios

As you proceed with customer-effort research you might find it difficult to untangle which components of customer effort are most problematic. For example, physical and rational thinking, when required in large doses, trigger time-related effort. And any of these components can trigger emotion-control effort.

The top priority of customer-effort research should be to identify the scenarios that lead to emotion-control. Irritating or offending customers leaves a lasting mark. These emotions are the most damaging and influential on future loyalty and word-of-mouth communications.

In many ways we are all struggling with the overwhelming nature of marketers constantly attempting to impress and engage us. To help the marketers you work with to actually engage, use customer effort research and help them create a truly effortless experience.