Guiding the C-Suite from Hunch to Hypothesis

By David Ogilvie, Bespoke Strategic Research, Brooklyn, NY, djrogilvie@yahoo.com

To sell research into the C-suite takes a consultative approach—one where you set aside methodology discussions. Instead, listen and probe like a qualitative researcher to help the C-suite team figure out what they need to discover and who might hold the clues. This article explores pitfalls in meeting with C-level executives and a process that has led to unexpected but welcome outcomes.

Tricky Ground

Nearly all clients buying marketing research for corporations are themselves market research managers, or some equivalent title in marketing. Their rapport with research suppliers therefore comes easily as the language they use is familiar. It tends to be about methodology in its broadest sense—about the techniques of conducting research.

What if the C-suite was not interested in research techniques? Or, at least, if not interested, recognized that the actual application of these was best left to experts? What if it were possible to discuss and design research in which methodology was hardly ever raised as a discussion point? What if the assumption underpinning the discussion was that the appropriate research methodology would become apparent once the nature of the problem was understood?

Such a scenario is not only possible, but essential to conduct original research for the C-suite, where people are typically more concerned with ideas rather than solutions. This scenario is the crux of qualitative research!

Hunch to Hypothesis

The precursor of research for the C-suite is often a hunch. Almost by definition, a hunch is rarely quantitative in nature. Hunches tend to sound like an opportunity, a predicament, or a threat. Three actual examples from CEOs include:

  • “I want us to get out of the specialty chemicals business. Can you help?”
  • “Surely we can sell many more milling machines in the US than we do now?”
  • “We bought this company five years ago. So far, we would have done better by buying municipal bonds. What should we be doing about it?”

These examples express frustration, but to the (listening) researcher they cry out, “We need facts!” and to get to facts we need to create hypotheses—and to do that, we need qualitative research!

In other words, qualitative research for the C-suite is a necessary condition for addressing the big strategic issues coming from the C-Suite, even if initially posited as a hunch.

The Conversation in the C-suite

Conversations in the C-suite are unpredictable, but there are three attributes that the researcher in the C-suite should bring to the party:

  • Listening
  • Knowledge of the research industry
  • An ability to link cultures

Your first objective as a researcher when dealing with the C-suite is to help them flesh out what they are asking for. They will likely come to you with very high-level and strategic questions and it is your job to probe into the heart of the matter and uncover what is underpinning the ask. The more specific you can get, the easier it will be to identify appropriate solutions.

Another essential attribute of the researcher is to be prepared to listen to ideas expressed in terms far removed from those usually used by his or her peers. The C-suite simply does not talk about probability samples, chi-squared testing or self-selection bias. Far more likely is for the C-suite to link a hunch with the implied question: “How on earth are we going to find that out?”

The three examples cited earlier depended entirely on listening carefully, and specific hypotheses emerged from those C-suite conversations. Only then could we identify how best to address those hypotheses.

Knowledge of the research industry
A comprehensive and current understanding of research methodology needs to underpin C-suite conversations—although you’ll rarely use methodology terms. While one shouldn’t go into a discussion in the C-suite intending to discuss the pros/cons of various methods, to be a true resource for C-level executives, researchers must be able to quickly identify how they would address identified problems. You should expect to be put on the spot to answer the following questions:

  1. What’s the high-level plan?
  2. How long will it take to get an answer?
  3. How much will it cost?

Your knowledge of the research industry will be vital to your ability to answer these questions, and you must be prepared to answer these questions or else your value to the C-suite will come into question.

An ability to link cultures
A third essential attribute of the researcher is to link the ideas expressed by the C-suite to a methodology best geared to answer them. One way to face the challenge is to think of research for the C-suite as a chronological iteration of exploration to confirmation, with a vitally important “midsection” of qualitative research bridging the two (very different) cultures of the C-suite and the quantitative researcher.

The Vital Importance of the Intermediary Qualitative Phase of Research

Broadly speaking, the exploratory dimension is necessarily qualitative, and the confirmation is quantitative. Distinguish the value that both offer your client and avoid deleting one for budget reasons.

It may be tempting to think that the qualitative component provides the answer and, while it may hint at it, answers coming out of qualitative must be substantiated. Just as qualitative outcomes require quantitative support, a jump into a quantitative phase without the thinking that emerges in the qualitative phase is likely to lead to incomplete results—as you would not have taken the time to uncover and optimize a wider range of ideas that could be tested. In other words, findings might be valid and reliable, but also incomplete.

The Importance of Human-to-Human

Focus groups, interviews, and sometimes webinars can provide an effective transition from early C-suite discussion to quantitative support or rejection of hypotheses. Conversations often prove to be an excellent source of insights. Often, unexpected remarks during qualitative sessions become the foundation for creating hypotheses and the wording of questions in qualitative research.

Whatever their scope and extent, the findings and outcomes of qualitative sessions should never be ignored or glossed over… but how does a conversation in the C-suite lead to these findings and outcomes?

In the three actual cases cited earlier, early discussion uncovered that severe misunderstandings in aspects of market segmentation, all of them simple enough once exposed, were hampering development of the client organization’s planning.

In the specialty chemicals example, the fear (expressed in hunches) that this was essentially a commodity-like (and thus unattractive) business was proved demonstrably false. Extensive research among users showed that the client had failed utterly to exploit highly profitable niches. Strategies coming out of this research helped them stay in the business.

The German company looking to sell more milling machines in the United States had been misled by their US distributor into believing that limited sales in the US were attributable to their equipment’s very high price and being confined to machine shops in electronics and aerospace. What the distributor had not revealed was that nearly every machine shop using these machines had been founded by or managed by German expatriates with a liking for the California climate. As a result of the quantitative research with US machine shops, the client substantially redesigned its machines. By expanding out of its German expatriate niche, sales boomed.

In our third example, the client needed to improve its return on its acquisition. Researchers needed to develop an understanding of the arcane workings of a property and casualty insurer. The extensive research among corporate buyers of insurance revealed a weakening in the client’s stranglehold on key lines of business. Taking note, the client diversified to other carriers, survived, and achieved better returns than from municipal bonds!

Anchors Aweigh!

In opening a discussion with the C-suite, direct the conversation toward airing the hunches that original research can test.

A useful and practicable analogy is to think of the C-suite as equivalent to the bridge on a ship. Officers need to be able to ask two broad categories of questions: “seaward questions” and “below-decks questions.”

Seaward questions may include: Where are we heading? What is the weather forecast for our route? Where are the rocks and shallows? Do we expect to encounter pirates? Below-decks questions could include: Is the crew properly trained? Are the sextant and compass in order? Is the powder dry? Are we properly provisioned for the voyage? Is there enough grog?

By introducing a metaphor like this, we are much more likely to move quickly to the matter at hand than by mentioning “market size,” or “competitive intensity,” or other jargon that floats around boardrooms.

A caution. The researcher in the C-suite should not affect or pretend to know the details of the line of business that is under discussion. There are at least two reasons: first, the C-suite will in fact know much more than the researcher; second, he or she will want to demonstrate this! While you should have a contextual understanding of their business, they are not looking for specific industry expertise, but for an analytical approach that addresses opportunities, predicaments, and threats.

Just Do it!

From a researcher’s viewpoint, each of the examples cited above brings out the real reward of the iterative approach to working for the C-suite. Although each line-of-business had very little in common with the other two, the process of turning frustration into results was remarkably similar for all three. The conscious phasing—exploration in discussion and qualitative research, confirmation in quantitative follow-up—addresses the needs of the C-suite and the competence of the research professional. I would be remiss, however, if I did not point out that qualitative research, while offering unique and unreplicable insights, is not a substitute for quantitative research, tempting though this may sometimes seem (from both methodological and budgetary standpoints).

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