The three-letter word that can help answer any question

By Michael Thompson, Generation Next Governor-at-Large
Reading Truck Group

Published in the June 2017 issue of Generation Next Edition.

Prior to entering the work truck industry, I spent nearly six years in the market research and strategic planning realm, progressively earning responsibilities that ultimately led me to become the lead researcher, data analyst, and report writer for our small firm. While I learned quite a bit about a variety of industries – including finding a love for manufacturing, which eventually led me to Reading Truck Group – perhaps the most important lesson I learned was the need to keep asking questions. As a matter of fact, I’ve often been told I’m inquisitive by nature and that a childlike sense of curiosity permeates through my personality. I envision myself as the caricature of the annoyingly sweet child who always asks, “Why? Why? Why?” as my parents silently pull out clumps of hair while grinding their teeth.

Why. As a student of economics, both behavioral and business, I have always appreciated this word. While business-to-business research is not commonly done in our industry, I’m quite happy to say I believe it is becoming more and more the rule rather than the exception, albeit slowly. With this in mind, I’m constantly drawn to that simple, yet oh-so-complex, three-letter word: Why. “Why are things the way they are?”; “Why can’t Company X break through into Market Z?”

The easiest arena in which to ask that question is, of course, face-to-face. There are times when this method is ideal. Formal focus groups and informal conversations come to mind first and foremost. However, at other times it’s cost-prohibitive to commit resources to such an endeavor. One solution? Telephone interviews with our customers – preferably by a third party.

But why?

While market researchers adhere rather strictly to a scripted set of interview questions during a telephone survey, they are often compelled by that inquisitive nature to go “off-script” and ask what are called “probing questions” – the most common and informative of which is “Why?”

But why?

An example a staple customer survey question is, “What is Company X’s main strength?” Likewise, a common response to such a question is simply “The staff.” If the interviewee is filling out his own paper-and-pencil survey, answering an online survey, or dealing with an inexperienced live researcher, that’s all that question will yield—a bland, flavorless, stock response that provides no insight whatsoever. The probing question “Why?” will almost always yield an anecdote that tells of a positive customer service or sales experience that data analysts and report writers can use to tell an overarching story about why customers appreciate Company X.

Needless to say, the probing question “Why?” is equally, if not more, important when it comes to finding areas for improvement. It does little good for our imaginary Company X to learn only that its main weakness is, for instance, its lead time. It is far more useful to know why lead time is an issue. For example, perhaps the real problem is a complicated computer system, or a slow supplier, or even a staff member who doesn’t properly record orders.

“Why?” makes a big difference in deciding which resources to devote to addressing weaknesses. Rather than blindly throwing countless dollars and hours at an issue and hoping that something works, “Why?” can help Company X be precise in its improvement efforts - saving both time and money. Nowadays, that’s golden. While the idea of discovering a previously unknown issue via research can be quite frightening (some say the devil you know is better than the one you don’t), breaking the paradigm of “ignorance is bliss” can help all organizations improve the end result for their customers, and therefore, for themselves.

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