Nicolas Gunkel is a research consultant and has conducted operational and ethnographic research on mHealth (mobile health) initiatives that support nutrition interventions in developing countries. He is currently based in Germany. These lessons on how to conduct market research will help you be certain that your social business product has the desired impact and makes a real difference. 

Crawling backwards out of the minibus, I looked into the twelve puzzled faces of my fellow passengers. We had sat cramped together, along with three cackling hens, two toddlers and baskets full of market produce, during this journey from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe to the rural outskirts of the city. Judging from the expression on their faces, they had rarely seen a foreigner who forwent taxi rides and then had to regularly disentangle his too long legs to prevent them from falling asleep.

Working on a BOP (Bottom of the Pyramid) market research project for an Irish/Malawian social venture dedicated to eradicate malnutrition, my Malawian research assistant and I travelled into the villages every morning to learn about food customs and beliefs. While our fellow passengers couldn’t escape rubbing shoulders with us on the bus, we hoped such intimacy would evolve naturally as we sought to gain the trust of the village women we interviewed during the day. Earning the confidence of these women, so they would feel comfortable opening up and sharing their stories with us, proved to be the hardest nut to crack. Underneath their exterior shell of skepticism and reservation, we eventually found exceptional knowledge and generosity, both of which we probably would have missed out on had we not taken the time and effort to build real relationships with them.

In our quest to get a richer understanding of our customers; their social fabric, their worries and ultimately their aspirations, we learned through experience what rules to respect and what we ourselves could expect from our stay. I am absolutely convinced that these lessons are generalizable to any social entrepreneur or business that is truly interested in making a difference in the lives of current and future customers. Social businesses all fail their purpose, and fail their customers, if they don’t make a genuine effort to understand what ‘makes them tick’. Do you use any of the below six recommendations in your business yet?

Try to live the life of your (future) customer at the risk of making a fool of yourself.

If in anyway feasible, try to fully immerse yourself into the everyday life of your customer. Make a commitment to stay for longer, so you can accompany her through the daily routines. At first your presence will act as a filter on everything you will get to see: acts assumed to be undesirable or inappropriate will rarely surface - instead you will witness socially acceptable behaviors. As time passes, neighbors and friends will also get used to seeing you around and gradually lower their guard. Take a closer look, what behaviors emerge that had been shielded from you before? Are people really doing the things they claim after the first excitement of being observed has passed?

Actually living in the same environment, eating the same food and buying the same items will offer you invaluable impressions into the lives of your (future) customer. Getting laughs about the way you act is the best indicator that you seem to step out of the role and your behavior doesn’t match the prevailing norms. Then you need to probe deeper to see if your product or service also violates this ‘rule of the game’.

Let someone who is respected in the community introduce you.

The extent to which you can establish rapport with the people you engage with is hugely determined by the quality of your introduction. Obtaining support for your work from the local authority is a prerequisite, without it many people won’t even begin to speak to you. Such an introduction can open doors, but may also easily bias your independence, especially if you are seen as a spokesperson of the authority’s interests. Moreover, you have to proactively fight the fear that all information you obtain is being shared with someone else.

In our case, we had to seek permission from the village chief, or his deputies, each time we wanted to interview someone under his sphere of influence. Bargaining over the conditions under which this could take place involved us making I clear that we didn’t want to speak to the chief’s friends and cronies. We assumed they would go great lengths to please the chief and paint an unrealistically bright picture of their lives.

Discover the role of your (future) customer in the community.

Is your informant an opinion shaper, an outcast or a person who is secretly ridiculed by his peers? Such characterizations should be taken into consideration when evaluating what you've learnt from them. This will help you to make sense of any extreme observations and provides a first orientation for the follow-up, when you want to categorize customers into innovators, early adopters, laggards etc. However do note that asking direct questions about other people’s standing in the community usually raises suspicions about your intentions. (Though friendly and conversational local staff can help you decipher some of the hidden clues and look beyond first appearances.) The grapevine will likely also reach you, even if you don’t specifically demonstrate your interest in it, as people start to inquire why they haven’t been selected for interviews but others have.

Yes, the customer is king, but not almighty.

Whether it applies to the ‘correct’ use of a product or service, ‘accurate’ perceptions of your company or any other everyday activity that you think could be done better (faster, cheaper, nicer…), try to keep your notions of ‘how things should be’ to yourself. If your product is consistently used differently than intended, it looks as though you did a poor job anticipating how people would engage with it. If objectively-speaking, people spread wrong statements about what your company does for instance, you better begin taking this at face value before it gains even greater currency. Still, you are wise to question the customer’s behavior and in some cases, may even choose to dethrone the ‘customer king’. If you observe that she alone in being way off the mark, you may call her attention to it and suggest another approach.

Ask for clarification again and again. Every single time. And then again. 

You won’t grasp it in its entirety the first time you hear it. Perhaps you also won’t the second or even the third time. Even if you think you understood, responses to certain questions can be extremely fluid, so that questions intended for clarification may prompt surprising results. Asking many questions again and again, in different forms, may come as a great challenge for someone who is afraid that this will make them look like a moron. But it is worth taking the risk!

Promise to come back. Then come back.

Finally, the people that have helped you by generously granting you access into their lives will feel much more appreciated if you visit them again once your project has ended. By doing this, you demonstrate how important their contributions have been to you. Too many companies have walked away on this promise before you. Don’t be one of them.




Follow Nic on Twitter (@GunkelNic) or visit his blog.

Originally published September 30, 2015

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