Episode #44: Aha! Uncovering Customer Insights With Darshan Mehta

Darshan Mehta’s time and passion for research goes back to the 1990s, when he became interested in case studies and customer research. Today, Darshan is CEO of iResearch, which built an online insights platform that enables companies to quickly, easily, and affordably extract insights from consumers or employees worldwide. In other words, Darshan saw the value extracted from in-person focus groups and created a way to leverage some of that same value using an online methodology.

Let’s dive into this insightful conversation with Darshan and explore the world of customer focus groups.

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About Darshan Mehta

Darshan Mehta is the Founder of iResearch.com – an insights platform to quickly and affordably extract insights from consumers worldwide, and ConnectQik.com – an app for instant connections and engaging interactions. In 2021, he plans to launch Big Mango Startup Hub in collaboration with King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok, Thailand.

In addition to his roles at iResearch and ConnectQik, Mr. Mehta has taught at The George Washington University in Washington D.C., at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, at Thammasat University in Thailand, at Sciences Po in France and the Franklin University in Switzerland.

Aha! Uncovering Customer Insights With Darshan Mehta

The Difference Between The What And Why Of Customer Research

I am really excited about this interview. I’m excited about all of our interviews and frankly, I love doing this show because we get to meet some very interesting people. Darshan Mehta is going to talk us through a tool that he’s created. He’s been in research for a long time. He references going back to the ‘90s so that gives you a perspective on it. What I found compelling and want to encourage the audience to listen for is this difference between what and why in consumer research.

If you’re getting to know your customer, too many people fall into the trap of the what. They go the quantitative route, do quantitative research and think, “If 100 people are behaving this way, then this is what we have to do.” Instead of getting to know why they behave that way. Why did they do what they did? Why did they make these choices? That’s a different type of research. Typically, we bring CEOs who are running businesses and learning about their customers. We brought Darshan because he explores how to research the why and he’s been doing this for so many years. We want to introduce this idea for people to dive into and understand there’s a different way to do research that is really important.

What I grabbed hold of was that he does it not just to bring together a bunch of data but, as evidenced by the title of his book, Getting to Aha! What is that big aha from the insights that you’re gathering? It’s not about how many gigabytes of data you have. What’s that aha? What can we do differently that’s going to change the game? He gives some great examples in the conversation of where that has come to fruition. With that, let’s jump in and talk to Darshan Mehta.

Darshan, we are so happy to have you here on our show.

I’m happy to be here to talk to both of you.

We had a good opportunity to have a little prep call in advance. Tony and I are both excited to dive into the work that you’re doing. If you could, go ahead and kick it off by telling us your journey. Go back as far as you’d like to tell us what you’ve done and how you ended up doing the work that you’re doing.

I’m originally from India. I was born there, but I moved to the US when I was four, so I’ve grown up in the US. One of the things I noticed when I was in college was I liked working on case studies. I realized that I didn’t mind finding the problems. I love solutions. I decided go to into consulting when I graduated and pursued it.  Originally management consulting and then I got into marketing, branding, advertising, and market research.

I got a passion for insights, so that’s what I’ve been doing for a while. I was one of the first ones to start dabbling with online surveys and focus groups back in ’98. At that time, I didn’t know if there was any real utility for it or not. I had my doubts, which everybody has, about going from the in-person to online, but then I realized that it was a very valuable tool in the full arsenal to gain insights.

Insights are all around us. They just need to be tapped into.CLICK TO TWEET

We’re looking forward to diving into some of the advantages of online over in-person too. Talk to us about your company and when it was founded, how you got it going, your vision for where you want to take it, and the customers you work with. Give us the whole gamut of your company.

It started as a need internally to use it for clients and projects. I had different iterations of it. Even though it’s going to be launching soon, it’s been trialed and tested for a while with actual projects internally. Everything’s going digital, even more expedited with COVID. I started a while ago with this effort and the timing’s good to launch something like this. Things are headed where you’re going to be empowering people to do things on their own. Location or geography is not going to matter as long as they can use tools effectively to get what they need done.

What size companies typically work well with your platform? Describe your platform in a bit more detail, so people know what we’re referring to.

I know some people use other tools out there like meeting software and stuff, but it doesn’t quite fully meet the needs you need for market research. For example, in focus groups, you have three roles. You have a moderator, participants and clients. The key to this is allowing moderators and participants to speak and clients and moderators to speak without any interference or knowledge of the participants so that they can say, “Ask this. Probe that,” then be able to observe.

That takes the “behind the mirror” and puts it online. The other also takes away from moderators needing any technical knowledge of how to upload images, videos or audio. It’s clean and simple. If you’ve uploaded a video or picture to share with anybody, it’s pretty much the same. I’ve tried to make it simple, easy and powerful but very affordable.

We used to do focus groups pre COVID in rooms with the mirrors and participants there. Everyone had to come to that location. You’re enabling people to be wherever they are with remote focus groups.

It’s a valuable tool for any size company. It’s almost like saying, “What size companies benefit from insights?” I would say, “All size companies benefit from insights.” The difference is traditional research methods like qualitative focus groups in-person have been too expensive for most people. If you think about it, most people want to find out why when they come to you.

They often go down the quantitative route because they’re familiar with it. Everyone’s at least taken a survey once and it also is more affordable. With this platform, it changes the dynamic where it’s now going to be more affordable for small to medium-sized companies to take advantage of this to gain insights. Companies can benefit from getting customer insights to improve their products and services.

Customer Focus Groups: There’s no company that can’t benefit from getting customer insights to improve the products and services.

I read on your website some of the things that are different but not necessarily worse or bad between the online and the in-person, for example, about the facial expressions and those kinds of things. Can you talk us through some of the things that are different and the pros and cons of each?

I do want to preface that. When I say pros and cons, I’m not for or against any methodology because, in all honesty, every methodology has inherent pros and cons. Online is a version and an option that’s going to be available to many people to expand the capabilities to gain insights. People often want to juxtapose either in-person or online, but it’s not one because each offers distinct advantages.

What I learned with the online platform is it’s unique and distinct for a few things. One, when you pose a question, this is a chat-based platform. I’ve tried video and everything but what happens is only one of us can talk at a time. Both of you have different thoughts and ideas. In a focus group discussion, if you can get everybody’s thoughts and opinions, it’s much more helpful. You get much more depth of insights and conversation and then everyone feeds off it.

When you pose a question online, everyone responds, but then everyone can see what the response is and can react to it. As a result, I’ve seen the transcripts be substantially more substantive and longer with online sessions than in-person sessions. This also addresses some of the personality things. There are always some people that are very quick out of the gate to have comments and thoughts. Sometimes someone is a little bit quiet or not as quickly out of the gate, but they often have this kernel of insight waiting to come out. This gives that opportunity for that to shine and come through.

One of my concerns was can you glean people’s personalities through the online chat? The answer is absolutely. Think about how much of your day is spent text-based. Can you tell a person’s personality from the way they write? You probably can. We tell participants, “Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. As long as we understand what you’re saying, we’re okay.”

An interesting thing I’ve found also is that people have to put their thoughts into writing they go through an extra step of thinking, so it’s a little bit more thoughtful when they get it down to the writing, which is quite interesting. Other advantages are we did a group for a major pharmaceutical company and they wanted to do groups around the world with employees. One of the concerns was the hierarchy within an organization for employees to be candid and open. That was not a problem online because we gave them anonymous IDs. That way, it eliminates any knowledge, so they are able to be more honest. It was quite revealing to the client that we had that capability.

In-person, there’s also the visual bias that can go either way. For example, we did a group for a government agency and they were doing a campaign for minorities. They were concerned that if everybody came into a room in-person and if the moderator is not a minority, but everybody else is, they’re going to say to themselves, “This is a group of minorities.” Whereas when we did it online, no one knew that, but we were able to get into that slowly and gradually. It was much more organic and natural. It turned out to be interesting.

I want to dive deeper into reading your book Getting to Aha! I was picking up on some pretty significant themes you have there. It’s one that I know Betsy and I talk about a lot ourselves. We try to bring it up on the show frequently. You’ve used the term insights here probably a dozen times, if not more already in the last few minutes. What’s the difference between information and insights? We are overwhelmed with information with data, but so often, we’re lacking insights.

Insights come from customer conversations.CLICK TO TWEET

The biggest challenge in business throughout is how you weed through the noise. There’s always noise and that’s what I had to do in case studies in college. What I liked was getting to that exact thing of what’s driving and causing this. Insight is not just a fact or an observation. It’s a combination of many things, a fact, an observation, cultural trends and technology trends.

The best example I can give you that everyone can identify with is a good smart comedian. This is a comedian that takes something over here and puts it together in a manner that makes you say, “That is so true and funny. That is an aha moment.” An insight is a combination of something that you then have a deeper understanding of what’s driving us.

Darshan, without mentioning any names, can you give us a couple of examples of some real good insights and use cases for what you do and the profile of the participants and the client? Help us see visually in our minds what this looks like.

I did a series of groups for a retailer in the Washington area. It’s children’s clothing. They opened their stores around 10:00. They were having stagnant sales and wanted to increase sales and all sorts of market share. They weren’t sure what was going to be the key driver. We did a series of groups and found out that a lot of parents, especially women, in the mornings would take their children to school and then go to the nearby bagel shop around 8:30 to 9:00 for a bagel and to socialize.

They were done by 9:30, but they didn’t want to wait another half an hour for the store to open, so they often just went and forgot about coming back. That little insight on how people behave and act drives them. The store opened at 9:30 versus 10:00. Within a week, they more than paid for the research and increased sales immensely.

A part of my book is insights are all around us. They just need to be tapped into. The question is, how do you tap into them? The real key is having conversations. I’m not talking about asking questions and telling people things. I’m talking about having a prescribed method to go deeper and deeper but listening to what’s motivating and triggering people to do something or not do something.

Diving into the why behind it, you and I had a conversation. Listening to your book has been interesting because I’ve played in the space between quant and qual, quantitative and qualitative for the audience, research. Amazon, as an example, is focused on quantitative. People like you bought these products. People that bought this also bought that. They have these engines as AI running in the background and making recommendations.

Those work well. They increase revenue most of the time and usually pay for themselves. They can be very effective. Diving deeper into the why is one of the areas of companies are afraid to step into because it’s uncertain and they don’t have enough stories of success. It’s understanding the why and getting to that insight. What are some companies you’ve seen where they missed the why, they’ve seen their brands and market share fall and a competitor steps in that place because they understand the why?

Customer Focus Groups: Today’s insights are tomorrow’s facts. If you really look around our world, there’s so many things that have always been here, but were an insight at some point.

Going back to Amazon, it makes sense that they do quantitative because there’s so much data. There’s no doubt that quantitative data gives you patterns of behavior. It’s telling you what people did, but it’s not telling you why they did it. Amazon can see a bunch of products that are selling well and they can say, “We’re going to do more of these products.” They may not necessarily know what’s the next big product coming down or what’s going to come up. I’m sure they do qualitative as well, but that’s one of the limitations of quantitative. It’s not going to tell you the why or the trigger behind it.

A good example is Gillette which owned about 70% to 75% of the men’s corporate shaver market. Their version of innovation was to add another blade. They went from 2, 3, 4 to 5 blades, which was the innovation. That’s probably a little bit more iterative than actual innovation.

However, what happened as a result of that, the price for cartridges increased quite a bit. To the point that to buy a cartridge, when you go into a store, you had to go to the clerk, have them unlock the cabinet to buy the cartridge because you couldn’t just walk up by it and take it to the cashier. This took away from the experience. Along comes a young startup, Dollar Shave Club, which changes the experience. You can subscribe to this and they can mail it to you. You don’t have to deal with this experience. They made major inroads to the male shaving cartridge market.

That was a business model-type question. What are the different big buckets you look at? What’s the balance in your business? Is it more product-focused? Is it business model? Is it messaging or is it just all across the board that when people come to you and want your help that they’re looking to solve?

It depends. There are so many different challenges. Oftentimes, a client comes in with one direction they want to go, but when you start talking and listening to them, they have another real challenge that they should think about and address. Some clients agree, some don’t. There are a variety of things that you can dig deeper in with these conversations. For example, you can talk about the experience and how to better design the communication material. Ultimately, what you’re trying to do is to get into people’s minds and, more importantly, try to get into their subconscious thoughts and feelings because our subconscious drives 95% of decisions we all make. These are things that we think and feel, but we never truly articulate.

What you’re trying to do with these conversations is to go deeper so that people actually articulate some of these thoughts and feelings. You get a better 360 perspective of what’s triggering or going behind this, whether it’s a business model, what their innovation is, the customer experience, or anything else from ad testing to messaging. That’s what you’re trying to do. Explore that with qualitative and explore different thoughts, ideas and hypotheses.

When you have some, that’s when quantitative comes in well because then you can create better questions and answer choices that are much more targeted and relevant. That’s something that you can quantify. That’s taking advantage of both methodologies. Each methodology has its pros and cons. The thing I strive to do is to maximize the positives of each and try to minimize the downside.

I would think a moderator would have to be very intuitive to get to that subconscious thought versus taking the answers at face value but digging and probing to see what they are saying there.

Every methodology has its inherent pros and cons.CLICK TO TWEET

There is a certain type that does better in moderation. The two key characteristics are, 1.) They need to be curious and, 2.) They also need to have some empathy to understand where people are going to be thinking or where the conversation can go. It’s not like people can’t learn how to do that. It’s one of those things when I started out, once you start doing this, you almost feel like, “I tapped into a secret here because I understand what’s making this tick. No one’s thought about it this way and it can make a big difference.”

There are so many times in the research that Betsy and I have done together where we have that aha moment like, “Someone’s done this before and knows about this.” You start looking around and no one’s talking about it. That insight is not being used. I find that fascinating because I’m addicted to those moments. I’m looking for them. Decades of work in this space and what I’ve seen repeatedly, you can train people on these skills, but you have to have an analyst who’s also creative.

That’s where that curiosity comes into play in my experience. I’ve got some friends that are good financial analysts and you don’t want them to be creative. Let’s say it that way. You want the books to line up. Is there anything you look for when you’re bringing someone on board to your team? How do you tap into to know that this is a curious person who we can up-level to get them to the place where they need to be?

As you have these conversations like in focus groups and interviews, if you have enough conversations and talk to people, eventually people will reveal their interests, likes and stuff are in personality. You can glean that and tell if this is a people person or not. The other thing you want in a moderator, even if they’re an expert, is that they don’t come across as an expert.

For example, if the participants say, “I don’t know. What do you think?” The moderator says, “Tell me what you think.” Not necessarily giving them the right answer because it’s not important what I, as a moderator, think or what the client thinks. More important is what’s top of mind or what the customer and the target market are thinking and feeling because ultimately, you’re managing perceptions more than reality.

What’s the average length for these types of online chat conversations to get to the insights that you’re looking for?

I try to do two hours if I can. To be honest with you, it seemed like a long time, but if you have an engaging conversation, we often have participants not wanting to leave. We always end it at two hours because we told them it was going to be two hours. However, with a platform that is much more affordable and easy to use like I’m launching, you could start doing more micro-groups and still be more affordable. When you do these in-person, there are a lot of costs involved, so you want to maximize the time as much as you can. With this flexibility of eliminating a lot of costs, you could do them anywhere from 30 minutes to even 2 hours. Could you do it for three hours? Possibly; it’s not impossible.

I love this whole idea because it’s about getting to know your customer better and that’s what our whole show is about. It’s a different method to do that. One of my questions is related to the Gillette story that you told us. The trend in customer experience that has been growing for many years is to look at the experience during the sale or post-sale.

Customer Focus Groups: Companies should respond to comments and reviews even if they’re negative because it really comes to how you deal with them. You have to recognize it because nothing’s perfect.

Betsy and I talked about this in our book back in 2018 because we saw things starting to move in that direction. What’s your take on the analysis that companies are starting to do pre-sale? Maybe even in the whole area of developing brand awareness and treating that not so much as a marketing play anymore but more as the beginning of the customer experience.

I talk about it in my book. I don’t think people are buying products anymore. They’re buying experiences. That experience starts from the first time they heard about your brand and interact with it to the time they consider it compared to other options they have, to purchasing and buying it. Many companies have a foot in both camps in the physical and digital world. There are different types of experiences that people are going to have. You’re getting to a point, at least on the digital side, that it’s much more about user experience and user interface that influence people.

We have many challenges. We’re not only talking about a computer screen. We’re also talking mobile screens, different sizes and all these things. I’ve often done it. When I’m buying a product or service, I want to know how good they are with their online presence so I can get things done efficiently, as opposed to an older way of doing things. I often find that as a distinguishing point between different services or products.

Darshan, I mentor in the Capstone class for the University of Dayton’s Entrepreneurship Class. We had a call and one of the students mentioned to me, “I never buy a product without reading the reviews.” If you think about the experience that people are having and if it’s compelling enough, either positively or negatively, for them to write a review, there’s probably something there. It was interesting to me to hear a 21-year-old say it.

Even if you don’t have conversations with your customers, they’re going to have them either way. It’s in your interest to be part of that conversation to better understand that so that it will lead to more positive responses and reactions to what you’re doing.

It was interesting from his perspective. When I look at reviews, my affinity for a company goes through the roof when I see that they’ve read the reviews and addressed them, which you don’t see as much. It seems a no-brainer for them to reach back out and be a part of that conversation versus, “Somebody gave us a bad review. That stinks.” I always think it’s interesting to see the companies that engage and say, “We had a problem with that. We’re sorry, but we’re working on it. Here’s what you can expect moving forward,” or whatever the case may be or even thanking people for a good review.

Companies should respond even if it’s negative because often, people aren’t looking at the negative comment. They’re looking to how you respond and deal with it. Every once in a while, you’re going to drop the ball, but people will appreciate it if you can be honest about it and recognize it. Sometimes people can get too skeptical if everything’s perfect all the time like, “These comments or reviews are not being authentic.” I would argue that sometimes, even in the focus groups, you have someone who may be quite negative.

I often think that’s an opportunity to turn them into being a super fan. They are telling you, “I want you to succeed by telling you this is a problem.” If you can listen to what they’re saying and address it, you can turn them into a super fan. Once that’s addressed, they’re like, “This is gold and great. This is what I want and like.” I don’t think you should always look at negative comments as a personal assault on what you’re doing, even though it’s hard. A lot of the time, this is your baby, product or service. If you can step aside from that and listen to what’s going at a deeper level, there’s a real opportunity there.

The data doesn’t get you to the “aha” in the same way as a conversation does.CLICK TO TWEET

That’s insightful because I remember we’ve worked for a couple of different companies. One was in the hospitality space and one was in the financial services space. Both of them had an annuity model or subscription model. They had people coming back again and again. What we often found was that new customers who weren’t part of that subscription model, when they had an experience, they would be over the moon about it.

Those who were in that subscription for 5, 10, 15 years would give lower satisfaction scores. They would clarify in their comments like if you do the quantitative and qualitative and mix them, they’d be like, “We’ll give you a four.” Then they say, “I love you, but your service has slipped over the last few years.” That’s like, “We’re family here. I want to give you feedback that’s going to help you.”

The person who’s only been there, seen or experienced that once are like, “This is amazing.” They don’t want to give a bad review necessarily because it was so phenomenal for them. You’ve got to know your audience when you’re doing these focus groups or surveys. It’s not an apple and an apple. It could be an apple and an orange. They’ve had different experiences.

It’s an ongoing process because, in this case, what happened is customers got to a certain threshold. It was already great, but then they’re looking for even more. Maybe not necessarily because of this problem, but they’re getting a different experience somewhere else. They’re hoping that some of that comes over here.

I catch myself saying this a lot on our show, but I can talk about this all day. It’s getting into the minds of your customers. That’s why Tony and I named the show what we did, not just knowing your customers because you do a survey but really getting to know your customers. This has been a great conversation. I appreciate it. Before we let you go, one of the things we love to do on our show is offer our guest an opportunity to shine a light on a non-profit, a charitable organization, somebody or something that’s doing great for giving back to the community. Is there an organization that you’d like us to give a shout-out to?

I would do anything to help our frontline people in the healthcare industry. There’s a variety of different associations that are trying to help them. I would do that because they’re under a lot of fire and challenges. I don’t have any specific ones in mind, but if you can find one in your area, region or state, you should consider helping them out.

When is your next book going to come out? I can’t wait to read it.

It’s one of those things that are always percolating, so you never know. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

People are not buying products anymore. They’re buying experiences. And that experience starts from the very first time they hear about your brand, interact with it, to the time they consider it.CLICK TO TWEET

It’ll have to be case studies of using the new software platform and what’s happened there because I can imagine there’s going to be some phenomenal things.

Tony and I have been chatting about the title, Getting to Aha! That sums it up. Did that title come to you right out of the gate? Did you know that when you were writing the book or after you dug in, you came up with that title?

I had that in my mind because when you think about insights, what you’re striving for is that aha moment. It makes you say, “Aha, that’s it. That’s what we’re looking for.” To me, when you say insights, what you’re saying is you’re chasing insights. Getting to Aha! seemed to crystallize that. That’s why I made it part of the title. The subtitle, Why Today’s Insights Are Tomorrow’s Facts, is because if you look around our world, there are so many things that we take for like, “That’s always been here.” This was insight at some point. Think about it. Look how much we’re using our smartphones, but not long ago, they did not exist.

Darshan, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it. It’s been great having you on the show. We will certainly stay in touch. We’re looking forward to seeing where this all goes for you.

Thank you for the opportunity. It’s great talking to you. I look forward to continuing our conversation.

Betsy, the thing that stood out to me when we finished the interview was using word conversations. He used that so many times during the show that it got me thinking, “It’s conversations. It’s the back and forth, the time to think and process.” You and I have conversations all the time and that’s how we come up with insights, the aha moments and the why behind something. Customer conversations are far more important in some ways than all of the data that’s out there because the data doesn’t necessarily get you to the aha in the same way.

That’s what we do with our customer advisory boards. It’s about the conversations and not just the data. One thing that struck me about Darshan is that he’s very passionate, doing cool things, but he also said, “This is not the end all be all. This is one avenue for getting those insights from customers.” It’s got advantages over different ones, but he’s looking at the collective way of getting this qualitative research. He’s providing a new, different way with some different advantages than we’ve seen, for example, with an in-person focus group.

The cost is lower, but there are a lot of other advantages. It’s this whole idea of, “Here’s another way that you can get to know your customers.” With that, thank you so much for joining us. We’re so appreciative of our audience. If you enjoy this episode and our show, please give us a thumbs up. If you haven’t yet subscribed, we’d appreciate that as well so you can get notified when we release a new episode. We’ll see you next time.

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