The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 7 Issue 1   January 2011


Many of us, as market researchers, businesspeople, and managers – and frankly, as parents, spouses, and human beings – have a natural tendency to focus on the negative. In the process, we often miss “the bright spots.”

Today’s “Research With a Twist” explains why focusing on the positive can help you identify, with equal or better precision, opportunities for the greatest improvement.

All the best for 2011,

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
The most recent Market Research Event, which took place in November, was, as usual, a terrific learning opportunity, featuring a number of thought-provoking sessions. One of our favorites was the session by Dan Heath, co-author (with his brother Chip) of Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

Here’s a story that Dan shared, and that really got us thinking about market research…

In 1990, Jerry Sternin of Save the Children arrived in Vietnam with the goal of improving malnutrition among Vietnamese children. The problem was widespread and the causes were huge: poor sanitation, lack of clean water, lack of education and poverty, to name just a few.

Instead of trying to address those big, root causes, Sternin decided to “look for the bright spots.” He visited rural villages and looked for mothers whose children were bigger and healthier than the norm. When he found them, he went about trying to figure out what these mothers were doing that was different.

Sternin discovered that the healthier children were fed the same amount of food as their peers, but in more frequent, smaller portions. In addition, their diets included food items that were not typically given to children. Taken together, these two factors accounted for the nutritional differences.

Sternin implemented a local education program whereby the “healthy moms” taught others. Word spread, and by the time he left Vietnam, over 2 million people had been positively affected.

As market researchers and businesspeople, we too have a tendency to focus on the negative and, in the process, miss “the bright spots.” We want to interview the clients we lost; we want to understand why certain programs are underperforming; we want to shore up the weak sales territories.

All important, certainly. But as Dan Heath’s story points out, only part of the picture. A look at the bright spots in your current business approach can help you identify, with equal or better precision, opportunities for the greatest improvement:
  • Conduct win/loss studies. Think about the last time you shopped for a car. If you left the lot without making a purchase, you probably received several calls from your sales person, hoping to get you back in. But how about when you finally made a purchase? If your experience is anything like mine, you never heard from that sales person again. That’s a mistake.

    Following up with the “wins” is an opportunity to understand what’s working. Was it price, dealer location, the sales person’s persuasiveness, or some other factor that has yet to be uncovered? Only by talking with your successes will you learn the answer — an answer that can help you determine which differences really matter.
  • Consider an exploratory phase. In Switch, Heath points out that, “As an outsider, Sternin never could have foreseen these practices.” He knew something was causing a positive difference in some children, but beyond that, he had no clues. No one would have guessed to ask about feeding frequency and it was only through an open-ended approach that the key differences were uncovered.

    Market research into business bright spots also benefits from a less structured, exploratory phase, particularly when you don’t know a great deal about a given situation. You may know something is working, but without the benefit of interviews and observation across a range of success patterns, you’ll have a difficult time identifying what these determining factors are.
  • Follow the winners. In every sales situation we have ever encountered, there are always some people who consistently outperform their peers. Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to understand why?

    Maybe they are particularly good at handling objections, or at targeting certain groups, or at making follow-up phone calls. Whatever the reasons, until you dig in and uncover the causative factors in the success of these folks, you can’t share it with the rest of your team.
  • Look beyond the black and white. Most wins are not all or nothing; there are gradations within each. Maybe part of a complex sale was made, but not all of the pieces that were possible came together in your favor. Maybe your sales team landed a place in “the finals” (which means it was successful to a point) but was not the ultimate winner. What made the difference?

    Lost sales are the same way. Maybe you’ve got a salesperson who’s terrifically good at taking a prospect part of the way, but not skilled in closing. Maybe their job needs to change. Maybe you need a different closer. Simply chalking it up to “a poor salesperson” may lead you to discard people who, under different conditions, could be valuable contributors.
Here’s the Twist: In his presentation, Dan Heath said that humans are four to five times more likely to pay attention to the negative. It’s human nature to focus on what’s gone wrong as opposed to what’s gone right.

By balancing our market research efforts with a healthy dose of (to use Heath’s words), “What’s working, and how can we do more of it?”, we’re more likely to uncover the factors which lead to more success.

— Mark

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As mentioned above, exploratory (often observational) research plays an important role in pinpointing the factors that lead to success. Keep these recommendations in mind as you move forward:

  • Move quickly. If you want to understand why certain behaviors lead to success (and others do not), you’ve got to get going while the details are still fresh. Make sure you’ve got trained interviewers on hand and ready as soon as the process in question is completed. The gold is often in the minutiae, something which tends to fade with even short passages of time.
  • Beware of flukes. You need enough people in your respondent group to be confident that what you’re observing is more than anecdotal. If you have five great salespeople, for example, try to talk with the clients and prospects of all of them. Otherwise, the fact that your superstar wears one brown sock and one black during prospect visits may appear to be causative, when in fact it’s just quirkiness.
  • Watch out for cherry-picking. People tend to trot out situations that make them look good and hide those events that don’t. Asking salespeople, for instance, to “share some examples of wins and losses,” is very likely to result in bias. They may only show you the losses where price was the clear determinant (as opposed to their suboptimal selling skills), or only share wins in which they clearly did something right.

    Make sure, therefore, that you employ an unbiased means of gathering examples.


Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

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The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. The “Twist” to what we offer is this: We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data. As a result, our clients gain more actionable and valuable insights from their research efforts.

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