Use Research to Make Strategic Decisions with Confidence

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Laurie Hredzak

As business leaders we are faced with many important decisions everyday. These decisions affect not only ourselves, but our business and everyone involved with our businessour customers, associates, partners, suppliers and community. So how do we make those difficult or complex decisions? Oftentimes, they require a great deal of analysis and discussion. Research tools and techniques provide important data for our decision-making analysis.

We ask ourselves the following questions to help us determine if using research will help us make the best decisions for our organization.

The Importance of Research

Understanding the needs and wants of our customers is critical for strategic business planning; and research provides direct access to our customers. Therefore, using research is vital to making informed decisions.

When thinking about who our customer is, we may first think of a purchaser of our products and/or services. Yet our customer can also be an employee, a partner or any other business stakeholder. Research can be tailored to any specific customer audience.

Our customers are directly influenced by the decisions we make. Conversely, our business is directly influenced by, and would not exist without, our customers. This makes it imperative that we use the insights and feedback we receive from our customers in our strategic planning.

Learn and Discover

The powerful aspect of research is that it encompasses a vast array of information waiting to be discovered. When thinking about our strategic business plan, what are the gray areas? Where do we need further information that will help us accomplish our goals? Some typical areas of focus could be:
  • Customer satisfaction or employee engagement
  • Advertising awareness
  • Competitive analysis and perceptual mapping
  • Product concept design and acceptability
  • Usability testing
Research Techniques

Primary research, or information that is collected or tested for the first time, can be largely categorized as being either quantitative or qualitative.

Quantitative research is a statistical method of data collection. A large number of responses are collected in order to represent the population as a whole. This may be necessary when measuring things such as customer satisfaction, brand awareness, product usage or any other context in which a numerical result is desired. Common techniques used to conduct quantitative research include computer-assisted telephone interviews, online surveys and mail-in surveys.

Qualitative research is used when a statistical result is not required, for example, if the intent is to examine behavioral patterns, advertising preferences, product concept development or taste testing. Common techniques used for performing qualitative research include focus groups, in-depth interviewing and in-store intercepts.

Getting Usable Results

While our first instinct may be to try to learn everything we can right away, it is wise to concentrate our line of questioning around one or two specific focus areas. Too much data will be difficult to digest and use effectively.

Getting usable results is the key to conducting research that will help us discover opportunities for improvement and make decisions that will lead to organizational change.

Accept the Need to Change

Once our research is completed and we have the results, now what? Mission accomplished? Not quite. Chances are we have positive feedback as well as negative feedback.

Positive feedback should be celebrated. It is evidence of happy customers and good business practices. We should use it to recognize or establish our core competencies and to congratulate our team on our great accomplishments.

While our first reaction might be to just rationalize any criticism, it is important to use those negative comments as opportunities for advancement and perhaps further study. After all, there are reasons why our customers feel the way they do. And negative feedback, while painful to receive, can be turned into a positive. For example, it may identify the areas that our competitors prevail and our customers find important. Thus, it can be used to strengthen our critical success factors for future planning.

It is important to accept negative feedback graciously for what it is—a candid suggestion—and not to condemn those providing the information we asked for. Doing so could frustrate those giving the feedback, as well as discourage them from providing more feedback in the future.

Making important decisions effectively and confidently can easily be accomplished by using research as an integral part of our ongoing strategic planning efforts. If our customers feel like they have played a role in our decision making, their loyalty will grow with us as we move into the future.

Originally Published in the Sequent Advantage newsletter, February 2008.