Simon Wood 

Well, it’s that time of year once again when every move you make will be accompanied by a ‘classic Christmas ‘hit’. But, as you prepare to roast your chestnuts by an open fire (having taken the necessary precautions) don’t forget that this isn’t just the season of goodwill.  Oh no – for many it’s that time of year when ‘experts’ make their predictions for the big trend of the following year.  Whether in the field of fashion, sport, culture or even market research, your inbox, twitter feed and  newspaper will soon reverberate to the sound of carefully considered opinion guiding you on what to look out for  over the next 12 months and how to get ahead.

This year I’ve decided to join in the festive forecasting fun and make my own prediction for the world of market research – so here goes:

At least half the ‘2014 trends to watch out for’ you read will tell you that 2014 will be the year mobile takes off .
Revolutionary stuff eh? Personally, I reckon I’m onto a safe bet with this one. I seem to recall hearing that ‘this will be the year of mobile’ for at least the past 4 years – and possibly more.  In fact, it’s quite possible this claim has been made every year this decade.

On a slightly more serious note, the fact that experts seem to keep making this prediction suggests to me that we’ve actually still not quite cracked this mobile malarkey. Despite the fact that huge swathes of the population seem to have been surgically attached to their smartphone for a few years, we’re still talking in market research circles like it’s the mystic future. So what is it that’s stopped us? Every other industry seems to have got to grips with it, yet we’re supposed to be the custodians of understanding consumer behaviour – and we seem stumped!

In my view, the big problem is that we’ve actually managed to simultaneously over and under-think it – quite an achievement! Rather than looking at this systematically, we (as an industry) have got carried away with the long term prospects and jumped at them, meaning the basic analytical and systematic thinking about what mobile offers us and the implications has been missed. I’m not going to claim to be a mobile research guru, but here are my thoughts on how we need to start thinking about mobile in research, and particularly in customer experience.

Putting a structure around our thinking
The first thing we need to do when we talk about mobile has to be to put a framework around our thoughts. If we do that, suddenly the ways in which mobile can help our industry become a whole lot clearer! So, putting my money where my mouth is, here’s a framework:

  1.  Mobile as a survey channel
  2.  Mobile as a passive data collection tool
  3.  Mobile as a delivery platform

You can easily argue with this exact framework, but I genuinely believe we need to have a framework such as this if we are to really embrace mobile and make it work, and that to get distracted by splitting hairs over the framework helps no one.

So, taking each in turn, how can this help what we do in customer experience?

Mobile as a survey channel
Mobile offers us huge potential as a survey channel. How many other approaches can you name where the respondent is (nearly) always there, where 90% of responses come within the first hour –and 90% of the population can be reached by it? This level of coverage is almost unheralded – certainly telephone, online and face-to-face are all unable to compete.

However, I’m constantly amazed how we steadfastly refuse to acknowledge it as one of the main methods at our disposal. Many researchers are simply acting like a bunch of clipboard wielding luddites, refusing to acknowledge the advent of a new weapon in their armoury. Ironically, given about 25% of ‘online’ panel surveys are currently attempted on a phone, it feels like mobile is trying to grab us, rather than us grabbing it!

Perhaps the problem here though is that mobile isn’t a single research methodology. Instead, the mobile phone is actually a channel through which we can deploy a veritable smorgasbord of methodologies: App-based surveys, ‘online’ surveys via WAP, diaries, SMS surveys. In fact, the picture is even more blurred as we can do multiple of these at once – e.g. invite via SMS to online/WAP survey.

Given the plethora of overlapping options available, its perhaps unsurprising the more cautious of us have held back, and relied on the tried and trusted – after all, a slightly naff online survey that ‘works’ is less likely to get you sacked than trying a new and fancy mobile approach which falls flat on its face and embarrasses a major client!

But, in danger of throwing caution to the wind, we can’t ignore the huge potential mobile offers us in the world of customer experience. As a survey tool it offers possibly more to this field of research than to any other. So how and when should we utilise it? Well here’s my list of top 3 (and not exhaustive) ways to use mobile as a survey channel in customer experience:

  1. Collecting real time feedback – So much of what we do is measuring the ‘in the moment experience’ – and mobile (whichever actual bit of mobile you use) is the only approach that can do that without an interviewing field-force the size of a small army! For any real time survey, mobile simply has to feature on the list of approaches.
  2. Understanding the Customer Journey – Much interview time is spent trying to elucidate exactly what experiences a customer has had, and how he/she felt at every stage. Then, having done that, we find ourselves caught in the dilemma of how much is genuinely how they felt and how much is the post rationalised ‘remembering-self’. Mobile allows us to get customers to tell us how they feel as they go through the different stages of the journey and why they did what they did. Not only does this give us a viewpoint much closer to the event, it can give us a much more realistic and accurate perception. If you’re in any doubt about that, check out Will Goodhand’s excellent presentation to the Warc Next Generation Conference last January – a refreshing re-evaluation of how beer is actually bought which I’m sure will strike you as much more true than the online survey results he compares it to!
  3. Pulse surveys – How many of us know of huge customer satisfaction trackers, measuring how satisfied customers are on key relationship metrics and assessing whether they are at risk or secure and what drives that? Most of us I suspect. What if, instead of that huge tracker, you simply ask your customers 2-3 key relationship metrics on a frequent basis? Realistically you wouldn’t lose much valuable data – the drivers of experience don’t change suddenly and you can still ask for the 2 or 3 key ones.

So that is all fine for the theory, but what about the practical ‘barriers’ that get in our way? I can’t cover all of them, but here are my thoughts on the ones I hear of most often: survey length, lack of contact details, and set up.

Survey Length
The obvious ‘problem’ with mobile surveys is a lack of length. You simply can’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) ask the usual epic surveys many of us have ‘grown up’ with. In reality though, how many of those questions do we really need? I know I make this point blog in, blog out, but overly long and boring surveys deliver poor quality data. Plus, do they actually give us any extra insight? In my experience, adding extra attributes to customer satisfaction surveys rarely changes the story or unlocks a hidden reason for dissatisfaction. Finally, for how much longer are we going to ignore the fact that respondents are bored of long surveys? They want them to be short, so let’s listen to them!

Lack of contact details
It’s true many companies don’t know the personal mobile phone numbers for all their customers.  Yet, how many don’t have email addresses for them all, or landline numbers (or even the right address). This may be a problem, but no more than for any other methodology. Let’s also not forget we regularly get bouncebacks from 20% of email addresses we’re given.

Set up difficulties
Mobile surveys are more complicated to script. Different devices have different needs (e.g. screen size and dimensions), and the way we’ve laid out questions for online surveys usually doesn’t work. Any doubts I had about that were confirmed earlier this week when the survey I was sent by a large UK customer experience ‘specialist’ research agency refused to adapt to my phone, meaning the scale and attributes were no longer linked (good luck to their statisticians if they run drivers analysis on my data). But does that mean we shouldn’t try? Of course not. It’s within our skillsets to set up surveys that will adapt and work across different platforms – we just need to do it. In fact the good news is that much of the thinking on this has already been done – just see the excellent work from GMI on how to set up a mobile survey and the implications on how we design them. We will need to spend more time and money on scripting, and on checking the survey, but it’s a tiny amount in the grand scheme of things and will easily pay for itself in better quality and more understandable data.

Mobile as a passive data collection tool
I think this is the exciting part of mobile. Our phones are capable of passively collecting phenomenal levels of information about our lives. When allied to survey data, that’s a hugely rich source of insight that could transform the way we do customer experience research. However, in this area I will hold my hands up and say we’ve not yet got all the thinking done, let alone addressed the practical challenges of how we do this. Yet, even though this is an area still in its infancy, there are a few areas where we can use this passive data in customer experience:

  • Location triggers – The dream is to be able to ping a survey invite to a customer whenever they walk in or out of your store/branch – solving all the problems with till receipt based research and providing a far cheaper alternative to mystery shopping or retail exits. However, the technology just isn’t there to do this – yet. I do believe it will one day be possible – but until then, this remains a dream for us to work towards.
  • Browsing/app history – Wondering whether your customer is loyal? Well, we already run analysis comparing web browsing data on a PC or laptop with survey results – why not do the same on a mobile? Suddenly the ability to detect a customer who is slipping away becomes much more thorough.
  • Experience mapping – We’re used to seeing cool looking maps showing the flow of people in and around our streets based on their mobile data. In many ways, that’s measuring the customer experience already – but again imagine the extra analytical ability you would gain from using that data to understand the experience your customer has had. Suddenly, you no longer need to ask whether their train was crowded or if they had to queue a long time at the checkout – you can use the mobile data of everyone else to understand what is happening around their experience and how it may have affected them. If you think about it, we often do this already for call centres by adding business data on waiting time and call volumes to survey data – mobile gives us the ability to add that same context, but for physical experiences.

Mobile as a delivery platform
If we’re brutally honest, most programmes fail because the end users who have to actually use the results and make a difference don’t buy into it. They find the findings too difficult to digest and the ways we deliver them can be a little clunky to say the least. With smartphone usage increasing, and more and more businesses equipping their employees with tablets, we suddenly have the opportunity to send results to the people that matter instantaneously – wherever they are.

This will undoubtedly impact on how we report studies. 100 PowerPoint slides won’t work – but effective infographics will. There is a huge need for us to rethink what we give to our clients so it can be deployed in this way – but that’s not beyond us.

In many ways, this is the easiest way in which we can use mobile in customer experience. The industry is already moving away from large results decks and towards punchy insight (or at least we should be). Most websites and portals can now be scripted in HTML5 so can be accessed on tablets and phones. In fact, the more you think about it, the more you wonder why we don’t do this by default.

So there to ends the lesson on mobile – a mere 500 words over my usual word count and probably headache-inducing for any of you actually reading this in small font on your mobile! Perhaps that’s a reflection of my passion on the subject, or maybe that there is simply so much to say. Either way, mobile offers us a fantastic opportunity which we must embrace rather than ignore. Yes it’s different, yes it may be scary, but at a time when our industry is looking a bit wobbly and under threat from big data and various other supposed panaceas, it gives us the ability to move ourselves onto the next level and reinvigorate research.

Simon Wood is Head of Stakeholder Management Research at TNS UK