The free-range customer. Using the element of surprise in research

Andy Haldane doesn’t understand pensions. As chief economist at the Bank of England, we might expect him to understand better than most.

But the point he made in his recent speech ‘The Great Divide’ is that we – consumers – find it difficult to engage because of the way financial businesses communicate.

He’s right. But in all the (many) pensions research focus groups I have observed, consumers rarely admitted to not knowing the detail .

The problem is, much of the qualitative research we rely on in business assumes people are self-aware.

We construct our research around what’s important to the business, build a survey or focus group and ask the questions.  People answer to the best of their ability.  Then go and do the opposite of what they said they would do…

Unlike Mr Haldane, most of us find it incredibly hard to say “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know”. We really don’t like to appear anything other than considered and rational, and generally clued up.

Let’s try it on you.

Why did you choose your pension provider? The honest answer might be “I didn’t”.   But your answer mentions tangibles like pricing, and convenience – and possibly the less tangible ethics and reputation.  If you have ever contacted your provider, you will be able to give me chapter and verse on whether they answered quickly, and were helpful.

How does the plan work – indexation for example?  You might know, but you will probably preface your answer with the words “I think” or “I imagine” or the old chestnut “It’s pretty standard”.

What do you need from it in the future?  Apart from the obvious thing –  money – you will struggle.  Right now you are not sure what you will need, when or how.  You don’t have a crystal ball.  But you will give me an answer anyway and talk about what “most people” want.

It’s not that you’re being untruthful.  But you are – like all of us – extremely good at rationalising.  We think we should know the answers.  We filter out anything which looks like flaky or half-baked thinking.  Even to the point of fooling ourselves.  We constantly take shortcuts to make sense of the vast amounts of data we’re bombarded with at every waking moment. Often we are not making active choices, or even noticing the detail.

So people like me come away from qualitative research with lots of answers.  But those answers turn out to be a poor predictor of what people do.  This is because our research only gets to part of the story.  We expose the sanitised version.  But the instinctive, gut responses can’t find their voice.

And the longer the time lag between event and research, and the larger the size of the focus group, the greater the effect.

So how can we catch our research subjects unawares, before they have had a chance to rationalise?

1. State a broad research objective – to better understand the context This means admitting that we don’t know everything yet.  Take a deep breath, channel Andy Haldane and ditch the script (for now).

2. Design a programme which intercepts research subjects in real time. Observe them before, during and after interacting with us.  Do it in the moment.

3. Conduct research in the most realistic and unobtrusive way possible. In the wild, or in conditions which simulate all the stresses and competing priorities of real life as closely as possible.  Do people usually buy the weekly online shopping in laboratory conditions?  No, they do it while watching TV, sitting on a train, chatting to the family, musing about cholesterol/weight/fridge space.  That’s where the research needs to happen.  Context is everything.

This means bringing ethnography and diary techniques into research plans.

Look over their shoulder and see how much time they spend researching and reading about pensions.  Or their definition of getting advice.

Use the focus groups and surveys to zone in on the detail, but let’s wait until we know which details are most important to customers before we drill down.

Grab a notebook and camera first, and just watch customers doing what they do – free range.  This helps us develop a true understanding and respect for their point of view.

Posted by Beth Richardson, Customer Experience Consultant, Lexden

Lexden helps deliver Customer Experience Strategy and Programme Management for clients seeking sustainable profit from customer experience.

If you like what you’ve read please sign-up to Lexden’s ‘Customer’s World’ Update for ideas, inspiration and insights to improve your customer strategy endeavours. 

For further information on how we can help with your customer challenges contact or call M: +44 (0) 7968 316548 orT: +44 (0)1279 902205.  You can also follow us on LinkedIn, Facebookor Twitter or read client testimonials and case studies at


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