Qualitative Methods: Versatile Tools for Quality Measurement

While service quality measurement implies an exact science using statistically validated techniques, qualitative research methods — that is, approaches relying on unstructured questions and typically employing small, “convenience” samples — are an indispensable part of the quality measurement process.

Qualitative research methods help to clarify what customers need and expect before the drafting of formalized satisfaction measures for use in a closed-ended survey. They also provide ideas and insights about how service quality can be improved, and factors that might lead to service failures. While the findings from qualitative research need to be validated with sample surveys, they sometimes uncover issues so obvious that management can take action immediately without waiting for more research.

There are two basic types of qualitative tools that may be used as part of a service quality measurement program: focus groups and depth interviews. Focus groups are the most familiar technique, and involve a largely free-flowing, unstructured discussion by a group of people for the purpose of eliciting ideas or reactions to a topic such as service expectations. Focus groups are often conducted at specialized facilities, where it is possible to audio and video tape and observe from behind a one-way mirror. A professional moderator, using a carefully prepared topic guide, leads the discussion in order to develop useful information.

One factor that makes focus groups an effective qualitative method are the group dynamics, which help to stimulate ideas that might not be raised in a discussion with only one person. A disadvantage of the focus group technique for interviewing customers for a business-to-business service or product is that the respondents may be few and scattered geographically, making it impossible to assemble them in one place. Also, business customers may be reluctant to speak openly about their relationships in front of others who may be their competitors. Finally, some businesses have a select group of key customers who may require a more deferential approach, such as a visit to their offices.

With business and organizational customers, a more appropriate qualitative method is often the depth interview (also called “in-depth” interview). This is simply an open-ended interview by webinar or in person. An advantage of this type of interview is that it has greater flexibility than a focus group — it is not limited to a particular location but can be either at the respondent’s location, at a place of convenience, or virtually by telephone or webinar. More than one person can be interviewed simultaneously, as in the circumstance when multiple individuals are responsible for an organizational decision. This type of depth interview may be called a “mini group” and can be conducted at the customer site or by conference call.

When developing or refining a quality measurement program, Rockbridge will typically conduct qualitative research with several populations. Besides interviewing customers, we may also talk to lost customers, prospective customers, intermediaries, and market experts. If our client provides a service to other businesses, we may interview the ultimate consumer as well as the business customer.

It is also valuable to conduct qualitative research with the management and employees of an organization. By asking these “internal customers” about quality issues, it is possible to develop an integrated model that links customer experiences to organizational factors. The internal interviews also help gain support for the quality measurement process.

In sum, qualitative research is essential to ensuring that a quality measurement program adequately captures customer need. The choice of method — be it focus groups, depth interviews, webinar focus groups, or a combination — varies depending on your information needs and who you are interviewing.