Guest Post: Why Services are Different

Susan Bell

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Emily James

This is a guest post from Susan Bell - a qualitative research specialist and director of Susan Bell Research. Sue loves to conduct all forms of qualitative research, including new ways such as qualitative social media research.

She writes about and teaches best practice in qualitative research and qualitative analysis. Originally trained in quantitative research, she is always happy to design and conduct all forms of research for a broad range of industries including financial services, food & drink, government and the arts - helping her clients use research to develop better products and processes, and to communicate in the language of their customers.

Back in the mists of time when market research began, most research projects were about products. I know that in my early days as a researcher, I spent a lot of time researching jam, beer and insecticide!

Researching products is a one-sided affair: we want to know how the person buying or using the product behaves. We can't ask the product about its experience... With the burgeoning of the services sector we have to understand and remember that services are different in a fundamental way: they involve interaction - whether via financial planners, hairdressers, GPs,or whoever. Simply focusing on the actions of the service user means that we may miss some fundamental insights.

So services require a different research approach.

The Interaction Paradigm

Here are somethings we know about how people interact:

    1. People manage the self that they present to the world in order to control it. All of us change how we look or sound depending on our audience and the setting. For example, when a client consults a financial planner, both the client and the financial planner are working on creating an impression. The difference is that the financial planner is more familiar with this situation than the client is so their 'performance' will be more practiced and fluent. (Erving Goffman wrote a truly wonderful book about this: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.)
    2. Service situations often involve the meeting of unequals. The doctor knows more than the patient; the planner knows more than the client and so on.

Interaction Strategies

Academics who study these interactive paradigms have found that when ordinary people are put in situations where they know they know less than the other person, they typically adopt one of two strategies, defensive or offensive:

  • A very defensive client will try to avoid looking a fool by saying as little as possible
  • A very offensive client will try to achieve the same goal by steering the conversation to topics that they know about

In the first case, the client may listen carefully to the information they have been given, but the service provider has little opportunity to tailor it to the silent person's needs. In the second, the client may interrupt the service provider so often or ask questions about other issues that the service provider cannot fully convey their message, or has to resort to a simplistic analogy to make their point.

Research Implications

So, we have found that to research services properly we need to ensure we do two things well:

  1. Understand all sides of the interaction
  2. Take how people interact into account

Importantly, when we do research for you as a service provider, this means changing how we test concepts and how we measure satisfaction.

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