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Why Ask Why? Reasons for Pondering an Important Question

A recent discussion in an online community about qualitative research techniques focused on the old adage that moderators should never use the word “why.” Applied Marketing Science (AMS) has never bought into this school of thought. In Voice of the Customer (VOC) research, the reason why respondents think what they think, say what they say and do what they do is typically what we most want to learn about. Let’s look at some of the objections to asking why and ways you can overcome them to become a better VOC moderator.

Objection 1 – Asking Why is Annoying!

True, asking “Why? Why? Why!?” like a four-year old child is annoying and not a good idea. It would put most respondents off. It would certainly put me off. In my experience, however, good moderators don’t do this. Good moderators make respondents feel comfortable throughout the interview. This makes asking why seem much less annoying or threatening. They also often put why questions into context, for example, by saying: “I’m curious why you feel that way...” or “Tell me more about why you did that ...” The goal is to sound inquisitive, not judgmental. In fact, I often tell respondents I may ask a lot of why questions so I can hear how they describe things in their own words. Once you do that, they never feel like they’re on the defensive.

Objection 2: Asking Why Results in Rationalizations

True again, asking why leads respondents to construct rationalizations about why they act the way they do. But so does every other question. All verbal communication—whether or not it contains the word why— utilizes the rational parts of the mind. Over the past decade or so, neuroscience has demonstrated that the subconscious mind influences much of what we do in ways our rational mind does not realize. We can’t communicate about our subconscious, however, at least not using words. The good news is that the rationalized responses we can provide influence and explain our behavior in important ways. They are not just made up. In fact, these rationalizations represent the stories we tell to make sense of the world and our actions in it. In VOC research, customers use their rational mind to tell us stories about their needs. If companies listen carefully, they can turn these needs into successful new products. If the products fit the rationalized stories customers have created, customers will find the products appealing.

Objection 3: Observation and Non-verbal Cues Work Better

In part to circumvent the supposed problems of asking why, some recommend relying on observational techniques, such as ethnographic research. Utilizing methods borrowed from anthropology, ethnographies involve conducting research on location with customers, observing how they interact with and use products in the real world. It’s a valuable approach that captures information impossible to gather through other methods. Observation alone, however, cannot tell us why customers do the things they do. We still have to communicate with words. Even during ethnographies, therefore, we still have to ask why.

Others suggest that we rely on non-verbal cues. Rather than ask why, for example, they recommend silent gestures, such as tilting the head or looking expectantly and waiting for respondents to elaborate. Nothing is wrong with these gestures. They help develop effective rapport with respondents during interviews; better to look interested than bored. Such cues, however, are not universally understood. Moreover, to expect respondents to understand that tilting the head means the same as the question, “Please tell me more about why you did X and not Y,” is unrealistic. It will not yield the depth of insight we expect or clients demand. If you have any doubts, just imagine relying on non-verbal cues during a VOC interview with a laconic engineer.

Go Ahead and Ask Why

In good VOC, the goal is to uncover customer needs. We do this by exploring why customers think what they think, say what they say and do what they do. As long as you act in the way good moderators always act, asking why will serve you well, helping you get the most from your VOC research.

Register for our upcoming webinar, “Asking the Right Question: Keys to Successful Customer Discovery Interviews” where AMS Principal John Burns, Ph.D. will discuss proven best practices for conducting customer discovery interviews the right way using our proven method.

Voice of the Customer

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