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Qualitative Research
It is common for researchers to make a clear distinction between quantitative research that focuses on scientific sampling and the analysis of numerical data and qualitative research  that focuses on less rigorous (or convenience-based) sampling and garnering textual information for non-statistical analysis.  Often, however, more mixed approaches are used in which both quantitative and qualitative approaches are blended and used to inform the findings of each other.

The advantages to quantitative research are that well-selected, relatively smaller random samples can be used to make generalizations about larger groups or populations.  By using strictly defined measurement approaches to assign numbers to observations, it is also easier for other researchers to replicate findings and to confirm or refine them in future research.  The data we obtain from quantitative research has the advantage of being amenable to highly sophisticated statistical analyses and modeling procedures that can uncover interesting and important relationships that are not visible to the naked eye.  These are but a few of the strengths of well-conducted, qualitative research.

Biases & Limitations
Qualitative researchers note, however, that quantitative approaches may be more prone to biases and limitations in the knowledge base of the researcher.  By restricting not only the questions we ask but also the availability of response alternatives (e.g., by using numerical rating scales), we are less likely to gain new insights from the research participants that we work with.  Qualitative research, in contrast, seeks to gain more highly detailed responses in the subjects' own words, rather than limiting them to responses (or even topics) that we have predefined within our numerical measurement systems.

At GuideStar Research, we agree with those who see the value in mixed models, where the focus of research may shift or differ depending both on the nature of the research question that we are asking and the nature of the people that we are asking it of.  Some business samples are too small to provide us with scientifically valid sample sizes, yet too important to ignore (e.g., true strategic partners).  And, some topics are critical, but not yet sufficiently well understood to allow us to reduce them to a small set of questions for which we can assign meaningful, numbered response alternatives for the respondents to select from.  These are two instances in which we might suggest using qualitative approaches, such as structured or semi-structured interviews and focus groups, to collect information that may be vital to understanding your key business relationships.

The GuideStar Approach
We also suggest that some of the distinctions between qualitative and quantitative approaches are somewhat artificial constructions necessitated solely by the need to draw distinctions between these two approaches.  In practice, we usually obtain qualitative responses to open-ended questions when we collect quantitative survey data and even when we use qualitative methods in interviews or focus groups, we will generally also seek to quantify responses in some areas or ask some questions for which we solicit a quantitative response (e.g., "How highly would you rate this company on...?").  Accordingly, although some of our research is more clearly in one camp than the other, most of our research incorporates both quantitative and qualitative aspects in collecting information.

We also believe and recommend considering blending the two processes in an iterative, cumulative learning approach whereby we use qualitative information to assist us in selecting survey content, include both quantitative and qualitative items on surveys to explore the views and intentions of respondents, and engage in follow-on qualitative or quantitative research to further and refine our understanding of the data that we obtain using predominantly quantitative surveys.

Qualitative input is especially useful in helping to select areas for surveying.  Although the combined experience of our clients and our staff can help to identify likely dimensions and items for many different types of surveys, the input gained through semi-structured interviews or focus groups conducted with key participants in the business relationship often helps to surface important new areas that warrant inclusion and investigation.  In addition, the qualitative responses on our surveys and the learning we gain from the quantitative data we collect often reveals new issues that warrant further understanding that can best be gained through additional qualitative research.  The learning that results from going back to key stakeholders to flesh out complex issues and topics can then be used to refine subsequent surveys to collect additional quantitative data and to generate more sophisticated statistical models of how various critical factors interact in producing the outcomes our clients seek to improve.

A Case in Point
Here is a case in point.  Several years ago, we began a large survey program for a multi-national company that is among the leaders in its field both in the breadth of its products and its corporate customer base.  We consulted with the client extensively and conducted interviews with key people in the organization to draft our initial survey of their customers.  When we statistically modeled the findings of our first survey, it was clear that the notion of "value" was a key intermediary between many dimensions of satisfaction and customers' likelihoods of continuing or expanding business with our client company.  We then conducted focus groups with senior staff in customer companies to better understand how they defined and evaluated "value" within the context of relationships with providers of products and services like those they obtain from our customer.  We also sought and obtained their impressions of how our client company compared to other vendors that they deal with for these types of products and services.  This new learning was then taken back to senior leadership for further discussions and we used the knowledge gained from all points of view to refine the questions that we asked about value on the next survey (including adding an open-ended question on the topic to gain further quantitative data).  In the following year, when analyzing the new survey, we replicated many of the findings of the prior year and were able to advance our statistical modeling to gain new insights.  In that year, we learned that different aspects of our client's relationship with their customers had different impacts on both value ratings and customer loyalty.  We noted, in particular, that customers were distinguishing between what could be best described as the service relationship and what could be characterized as the strategic relationship that they have with our client.  A series of semi-structured interviews followed with senior representatives of customer companies and we advanced our knowledge of this distinction further.  Since that time, our clients have focused on promoting strategic relationships with their large customers and it has become a major focus of their sales training, customer support, and our ensuing surveys.  We are now continuing this process, seeking to learn more about how partnering and value can be enhanced and we are tracking progress in these areas with each new round of surveying.

While clear distinctions can be made between quantitative and qualitative approaches to research, we believe that a blending of the two is needed for a full understanding of business relationships.  This can help both to subvert the potentially negative consequences of pre-existing biases that shape survey content and to flesh out the most interesting and important findings obtained when collecting quantitative survey data.  When time and resources permit, partnering with us to engage in an ongoing learning process is often your best path to understanding the relationships that drive your business forward.
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