Why Do We Still Use the Telephone for Market Research?

When presenting to a prospective client, I am often asked this question—Why phone? Given all the digital survey options from email, text, QR codes, etc., why do you still use the phone? This is a fair question. I want to outline why we use the telephone for much of our Market Research. This blog is especially worth reading if you consider implementing a CX feedback program or changing your existing one.

To Understand Why the Phone Fits Well, You Need to Understand the Markets We Serve

We serve OEMs and value-added dealers selling products and services to other businesses. Among our markets are construction equipment (Caterpillar), farm equipment (AGCO), trucks and buses (Navistar), lift trucks, and related equipment (Wiese USA, Equipment Depot, KION). The equipment is generally used in the performance of another business service. For example, the Navistar trucks deliver products. AGCO tractors and combines are used to produce food. Material handling equipment is used in warehouses and other places to store and organize products for distribution. One of the characteristics of all of our served markets is the products sold have long service tails. Customers are in frequent contact with their providers.

Services and Parts are usually large, complex, and expensive. A single service may run $25 to $50K. Our clients want to get as much detailed feedback as possible—digital methods will not likely provide the needed details based on our experience.

An engine overhaul in some products can cost $500,000 or more and take several months. We have found that the customer is often just as anxious to provide feedback about what went well and what could have been better as the provider. The provider especially wants to know how to improve. A single score doesn’t tell you much about a complex service.

For more straightforward repairs and parts orders, a digital option is better. This approach applies to those experiences where the service delivered is very defined (e.g., an oil change) or the part is smaller and less complex (e.g., an air filter).

Reaching out by phone works for customers. Many of the customers do not work in an office. They are in the field, in a warehouse, on a job site, or even on a piece of equipment. Customers are often on the move but usually have cell phones. If they are not otherwise busy, we can collect valuable, detailed information in a 3–5-minute interview. For the customers in the markets we serve, the phone is convenient and practical to reach them.

Nothing beats listening to what the customer actually says. We record all interviews, which are available on our client portal, along with the transcript. Our clients often tell me they learn much from listening to the interviews. Since they usually know their customers exceptionally well, they can discern much about how the customer feels about the experience. As one client told me recently, “What the customer says, or doesn’t say, and how he says it is powerful information for improving CX.”

Small but diverse customer bases make the phone the better choice for most areas. A typical client may have 5,000 to 6,000 customer accounts on file. Likely, no more than 400 to 500 accounts account for 80%+ % of the client’s revenue. Assuming a 10% digital response rate, we get responses from 550 customers (averaging the range). If we use phone surveys, we are likely to reach at least 1,650 respondents. Since the b-to-b customer base varies by size, types of equipment used, and applications, we are better able to get feedback from these narrow market segments by using a phone.

Get a more representative sample. We use a random selection process within our system to select customer interviews. While no selection process is perfect, we get a more representative sample of customer views, not just from customers who are exceptionally positive or negative about a provider.

I could list many other reasons for using a phone survey process in a b-to-b market, but these are the major ones we have found.

Is Use of the Phone for B2B Customer Feedback Likely to Change?

I am not a forecaster and will leave forecasting future phone use trends to others. I follow the advice of Yogi Berra, the late Yankee catcher, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” With this caveat, I want to offer some observations about future directions and phone use.
The use of phones to get customer feedback is unlikely to disappear soon for all the reasons outlined in the previous section. There are other reasons as well.

Phone calls work. We know from our research that we get limited unstructured feedback from customers if they complete the survey. In one study of our clients, we found that digital surveys produced less than 50% of the qualitative feedback from a phone survey. The qualitative feedback on a digital survey could have been more informative (e.g., They do a good job.)

Phone surveys save time for our clients. If a customer gives a low score on a digital survey, they often give little information as “why” or provide cryptic feedback that is hard to understand unless they are agitated. When doing a phone interview, if a customer has an issue, our team is trained to probe and at least begin to define the root concern. Because we are an outside firm, we are in a better position to uncover the burr under the customer’s saddle blanket.

There are other ways phones are effective, not necessarily in CX. In the automotive industry, phone calls generate 10-15x more revenue than web leads (Source: BIA/Kelsey). According to Forrester, 85% of marketers believe inbound calls and phone conversations are critical to their organization’s digital-first strategy. Automotive marketers plan to tap into phone call data to understand their customers better and inform their strategies. While customers may use the web to get information, they ultimately want someone to consummate a deal.

Are you growing weary of too much digital? I remember listening to a great speaker many years ago who discussed looking for faint fires on the horizon that indicate potential change. I want to point out one faint fire that warrants attention.

Self-service checkout lanes have been with us for many years. I like them and use them often. However, companies like Walmart and Booths (a British supermarket chain) have begun evaluating self-checkout. One of the reasons they are taking a second look is that inventory theft is higher in self-checkout lanes. Another reason is that customers who use self-checkout are less loyal, according to researchers from Drexel University. According to the authors, “Customers feel more rewarded by a store and ‘“feel like they were treated more valuably”’ when using regular checkout because it involves less effort and cashiers handle the scanning, bagging, and payment process….”

Think about the survey modes you use. Have you considered the telephone for Market Research?

One size does not fit all. Digital surveys work well in many situations, but not all. Likewise, phone surveys work well in many situations, but not all. If you are considering starting or modifying your CX program, consider the following questions:

What is the easiest way for my customers to provide feedback?

While many automatically think digital, there may be other options.
Which mode will allow you to reach the most customers most effectively?

You want to be sure you are getting accurate information.
Most importantly, do you have the contact information for phone or digital surveys?

You might be surprised that this is often a significant problem when starting a CX improvement program.

What do you think about phone feedback? Digital feedback? Let me know.

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