Sue Collin Talks Benefits of Qualitative Research

On this All About HR podcast episode, Tom meets with Sue Collin the Senior Vice President and Director of Qualitative Research at RTi Research. They discuss the differences between qualitative and quantitative research and how they can work together to tell a story in the data. Sue also shares the best practices she’s learned over the years for collecting qualitative data and how to use it. The episode wraps up by making the connection of how these two types of data can be used in your HR toolbox through workplace surveys and interviews.

VIP Guest Sue Collin

Sue Collin is Senior Vice President, Director of Qualitative Research at RTi Research. Sue spent 25+ years guiding corporate teams through quantitative research. She now designs and moderates qualitative conversations as a Human Stories Champion. When she’s not helping clients find the consumer truth and develop a brand strategy, she is in her little art studio making mixed media collages with lots of layers.


LinkedIn Sue Collin

Episode Summary:

Quantitative vs Qualitative Research

Sue begins by telling us about her work at RTi Research and sets the stage for the conversation by defining and sharing the difference between qualitative and quantitative research. They discuss how they are both ways to collect data but just follow different approaches. Quantitative research collects numerical data through things like surveys and analyzes it using statistical methods. On the other hand, qualitative research focuses on gathering more detailed information and non-numerical data through methods like interviews and focus groups.  

Sue mentions that she sees these two methods as the “what” and the “why” of the data. Quantitative research shows what the results of the data are, while qualitative explains why the data may be this way. They work together to dig deeper and really understand the concept you are collecting information on.

Connecting this back to HR with an example: you can use surveys to collect feedback from your employees which will give you solid data but taking it a step further doing interviews as well can really give you the insights that tell a story.

Best Practices for Qualitative Research

Now that the definitions are laid out, Sue starts to share some of the best practices for conducting qualitative research and how to make that data actionable.

“It's all about having objectives, knowing what you want to discuss with the person, having the right moderator, and making sure you answer the questions you want answered.”

“It’s the moderator’s job to be fully present and show the respondent that they are showing up for them and want to make sure they’re heard. Oprah Winfrey said something like, “Above all, everyone just wants to be heard”, and so I try to accomplish that in every interview that I do. Being present is most important.”

Establish Trust

Sue says you should strive to establish trust, but it doesn’t always happen right away. You can get started by breaking the ice in the beginning and asking fun questions about them. Sue gives the example of asking if they were to write a book, what would it be about and how did they choose that topic? Little tactics like this from the moderator begin to build that trust between them. She mentions that she tries to be true to herself but also mirrors their energy so they can become more comfortable. One of her biggest takeaways is, don’t make it feel like a boring Q&A session. Strive for flowing conversation, but one where they are doing most of the talking.

Help Them Understand

Sue goes on to mention the importance of making sure the respondent understands what you are asking. If you get a sense that they might not be grasping the question, you need to adapt, rephrase it for them, or give them an example. Not everyone has the same experiences so they may not have the context to answer the question. This is where the moderator plays a key part in helping to clarify it for them.

Sue says that you should also take cues from their body language. Does their body or facial expression signal that they still aren’t clear on what you are asking? She gives an example that sometimes if you really want to be sure you’ve covered it, you can repeat their response back to them for clarity.

“Sometimes I will play back what they've said and then actually say, I want to make sure I understand this, you tell me if I have it right. Sometimes even if I have it right, they go on to further explain it.”

Avoid Asking “Why?”

Sue explains that she always avoids asking “why?” in her interviews because it can often put people on the defensive. People can feel like you are questioning their response and can break some of that trust you have been building with them. Sue says some alternative phrases can be “What led you down that path?” or “How did you get to that decision?”.

Watch Your Tone

Like with any conversation, most of the time it’s not what you say but how you say it. Sue mentions that when collecting this type of qualitative research or conducting interviews, it is important to be mindful of your tone. You don’t want to come off as judgmental or potentially bias their answer. She says that she has the most success with using a tone that is curious and isn’t too forceful.

Make it Human

Sue wraps up this “best practices” piece of the conversation by sharing her final tip with us. She says to try to keep the conversation human. What she means is, in a normal conversation the flow isn’t always perfect. She likes to bring in the human element by staying transparent. If she asks a question out of order, or maybe phrases it incorrectly she likes to acknowledge it as she would in any normal conversation. She’ll say something like “Actually, hold that thought. I wanted to ask you this first, so let’s take a step back for a second.”

To sum it up, there are many pieces to being a successful moderator, and Sue compares it to a Broadway play.

“I think of it as a Broadway play Tom, where I'm going to Broadway on every single interview. Except I am not the lead actor or actress, I'm the supporting player. My respondent is the lead, and my goal is to make them look good, which really means enabling them to share openly and candidly with me. When you think of a Broadway play, which I've never produced, you've got to imagine it just like a podcast. There's a lot of moving parts that you have to think about as you're doing it. So, it's really staying on top of all of that, and being prepared for it as best as you can.”

How Qualitative & Quantitative Work Together

Tom and Sue end this episode by discussing how qualitative and quantitative data can work together for an HR manager to get a full picture. If your organization is collecting employee feedback through surveys, they are likely primarily getting quantitative data. For example, in something like an exit interview survey, the quantitative data allows you to easily see the main reasons employees selected for leaving the company and the percentages for each one. Layering in the qualitative element can come in to support this data and dig a bit deeper. Having an actual exit interview with some of the departing employees allows them to expand and give additional details that often lead to more insights that weren’t obvious in the quantitative data.

The bottom line of this episode is: the combination of qualitative and quantitative data collection is key to getting the fullest and most representative insights. They are both useful tactics that should be part of your HR toolbox when collecting feedback.

Full Transcript

Welcome to All About HR. I’m your host, Tom Horne and I’m on a journey to learn about all things HR. I’m documenting my conversations with thought leaders, HR professionals, and real employees. We talk about everything from recruiting, workplace of the future, benefits, you name it. We’re all about HR. Let’s go.

Tom Horne  00:24

Welcome back to another great episode where we are learning all about HR. Pretty excited for this episode. It was a referral from another guest we had last year in 2022, April Bell. She wrote the book, the Firestarter: Igniting Innovation with Empathy and it was just an awesome conversation. I love the idea of bringing empathy to work. So, when she reached out and said, hey, I want to connect you with Sue Collin, I said, let’s do it and here we are today with our guest. So, let me introduce her.

Our guest, Sue Collin is Senior Vice President, Director of Qualitative Research at RTi Research. She spent 25+ years guiding corporate teams through quantitative research. She now designs and moderates qualitative conversations as a Human Stories Champion. When she’s not helping clients find the consumer truth and develop a brand strategy, she is in her little art studio making mixed media collages with lots of layers. Sue, welcome to All About HR.

Sue Collin 01:27

Thanks, Tom. Real excited to be here and talk about HR and everything else.

Tom Horne  01:32

Fantastic. So, you’re in Connecticut, right? Where in Connecticut are you calling in from?

Sue Collin 01:37

I’m in southern Fairfield County. So, about 50 miles outside of New York City.

Tom Horne  01:44

All right. Excellent. Did you ever live in the city?

Sue Collin 01:46

Yes, I did. I’ve been back and forth from New York to Connecticut. I moved to New York City and Queens. I lived there for almost 20 years and now I’ve been back in Connecticut for about the same amount of time.

Tom Horne  01:59

What’s your favorite road to drive around? There’re all these different highways. There’re some really scenic ones out that way too. So, what’s your favorite or least favorite roads driving on the northeast?

Sue Collin 02:10

Oh, my there are so many I would say any scenic route that’s two lanes and I don’t have a truck in front of me.

Tom Horne  02:18

Yeah, right?

Sue Collin 02:20

Yes, and it could be anywhere in Connecticut. It’s all beautiful.

Tom Horne  02:24

Yeah, I’m a Palisades Parkway guy on the other side of the Hudson River there. Absolutely love that one. Before we get into it, tell me a little bit about this little art studio, mixed media collages that you’re doing. It’s just I got your bio, and I went okay, that’s great. But now, as I was saying, I went wait, tell me more about that. That sounds pretty interesting.

Sue Collin 02:43

Well, you know, when people are asked to introduce themselves, they usually speak about work and that’s fine. That’s a big part of what we do and a lot of what I do comes from the creative side and doing improv, if you will, when I’m doing qualitative interviews, and I kind of helped myself along with my creative endeavors. So, I’ve been doing art, mixed media art, with found items for a very long time and I think of the collages that I do are similar to a qualitative conversation. So, just like I move things around in a conversation, it’s not linear. From one person to the next it’s always different, because people are different. But back to the studio, I have a room upstairs and it is a big mess, with piles of canvases and papers and all kinds of interesting things and I just fool around up there. Sometimes I’m making art and sometimes I’m thinking and sometimes I’m doing both.

Tom Horne  03:40

I’m jealous. It sounds like a really great space to be able to just go lock yourself into and just get the creative juices going. So, April Bell, we had her on the show, she introduced us, tell me a little bit about how you know April and how that got you here today?

Sue Collin 03:57

April and I met through an industry group called MRX Pros. So, marketing research or marketing insights, pros, and it’s just a nifty meeting, half hour meeting. It’s one of the only meetings on my calendar that’s booked every week. There’s a short speaker on something about life or business, we go into a breakout room and it’s fantastic. We meet new people each time and there’s April, we started talking and I mentioned that I love being on podcasts and she said I have someone for you to talk to and it was you Tom. That’s how we met and I know she’s into qualitative and into facilitation as well and I still have to read her book and I can’t wait to do that.

Tom Horne  04:42

Yeah, it’s a great book. I’ve got a copy on my desk and it just makes so much sense. It’s one of those books that takes a concept everyone’s heard of and then turns it into a really straightforward, easy to understand way to integrate that into problem solving and project management at work. It’s great.

We always start off with everyone’s first question. We’re all about learning and listening. What are you listening to right now Sue?

Sue Collin 05:10

In terms of music?

Tom Horne  05:11

Anything podcasts, music, audiobooks, whatever you’re listening to.

Sue Collin 05:15

Sure, music at any time of the day, it will be something different. I love Chicago and Steely Dan and Tony Bennett and smooth jazz, anything that doesn’t have lyrics when I’m analyzing or writing things. In terms of podcasts, I’m really into Mel Robbins, because I think we can all grow every day and I’m also listening to a podcast named Empathy-Led by Junior Nyemb, who owns the Grio Agency and marketing consultancy. He has fantastic guests, from all walks of life talking about business and empathy.

Tom Horne  05:56

I haven’t heard of that. That’s part of the reason I asked the question, I’m always trying to find new things to listen to. So, we’ll have links to all that in our post-show notes. But let’s get into it now. Let’s talk about what you’re doing and get into our big topic today and I think in you describing what you’re doing currently, it’ll just take us right there. So, tell us about RTi research, and what your role is with them?

Sue Collin 06:17

RTi research is about 50 years old. We’re a marketing research and brand strategy consultancy, and we’re all about turning data into meaning. The premise is that we all collect a lot of data for our clients, and what does it all mean? What’s the one unifying theme that comes out of the data? And how do we share that out so that stakeholders understand it, know what it means and can act upon it. We also have a Chief Meaning Officer who’s been in the advertising agency world for years and years and he adds a creative side to it, that we consider second to none in the business in terms of the different things that he helps us produce for our output. So, we do a lot of quantitative work and we also integrate qualitative work into our projects for our clients, where appropriate, and that’s where I come in.

Tom Horne  07:12

At People Element, we collect quantitative and qualitative research and I feel like we’re always trying to have to justify the qualitative research or people come in with such strong opinions about qualitative versus quantitative. Let’s start with some definitions. What is qualitative research and then what is quantitative research?

Sue Collin 07:32

I like to think of qualitative research as the why, behind the what and the quantitative research is usually the what. It is data-driven in terms of hard numbers, statistics, talking about one in three or 50%, lots of closed-ended questions, there might be some open ends as well. Often, it’s an online survey, it might be a telephone survey or an in-person survey and it’s really getting at some very specific things where people, respondents are reacting to things that we’re putting before them and there’s really not a lot of deviation from it, because it’s a structured survey.

Whereas qualitative, yeah, there’s a guide, but a discussion guide is called a guide because that’s all it is. So, if I’m talking to you, Tom, today, for one hour on an interview, our discussion will clearly cover the major themes that I’m charged to get at. But our conversation is going to look very different than if I was talking to you know, someone named David, because he’s a different person, and he has different experiences. So, they’re different and yes, people have strong opinions. The only opinion I have is that there’s no one size fits all. It’s all about what are the research and the business objectives and what’s the best way to get at it.

Tom Horne  08:53

That’s a great definition. It’s getting the mind going already because I’ve never thought of it. But I guess this podcast is qualitative research. I don’t know if it’s research, but it’s qualitative, right? Like, podcasts are qualitative.

Sue Collin 09:06

It’s absolutely qualitative and I would venture to bet if you ask the same questions next week, on a different guest, you’re going to have a different conversation. It’s going to go a different route, to come up with different insights, the person you’re interviewing might be an easier person or more difficult person to interview. I don’t like to call it touchy-feely fuzzy, because that maybe gives it that cachet of why am I doing it if it’s touchy-feely, but it’s so human-focused, that it’s got that element of you’re touching a person you’re really getting inside of them on what are their motivations. You’re not just asking a rating scale, you’re really trying to find out why.

Tom Horne  09:49

Yeah, and I think that leads to kind of that perfect follow-up question of so many people debating, well, I want that data. 63% of people said X and a lot of times they look at the other part as just opinions or feelings. Or they think yes, it’s the ‘why’ but it’s not as actionable. It’s not data. It’s just talk. I think there’s probably gonna be the whole rest of the conversation somewhat, but how do you get that ‘why’ into something that becomes actionable and into data that can be used?

Sue Collin 10:22

Well, first of all, I mean, I’m just want to unpack what you said. I think everything is data, every single thing. What am I going to have for dinner tonight? Well, what does my family like? Oh, we had macaroni and cheese last night. We’re not going to have it again tonight. I think there’s data in everything. I think that it’s all about having objectives, knowing what you want to discuss with the person, and having the right moderator.

Let’s say that that’s me and making sure we’re staying on point and that we answer the questions we have to answer. But we can certainly go off topic, if that’s where the discussion goes. Because what I’ve found in qualitative research is, just like any kind of research, you go into it thinking you know all the things you’re supposed to ask or the general themes and what you’re supposed to ask to get to some answers for your client. But all of a sudden, somebody brings up something that you had no intention of going there on, so you spend a couple of minutes going down that yellow brick road. You realize, wow, they’re mentioning something we never thought about. We were never going to expose them to a concept that talked about healthcare a certain way, or whatever it is we’re discussing. So I think about quantitative research as going after consensus usually, qualitative research does that as well, even though it’s amongst small amounts of people, but it also goes after the one offs, because in these conversations, you often find nuggets of information that stakeholders can use to go someplace else.

Tom Horne  11:57

It sounds like, it really can help identify kind of your outliers, too. You’re going to get your arc of information from your quantitative data but then what are the outliers, whether they’re positive or negative? Understanding some of these other forces, that might not be a straight line, that might be impacting your quantitative results.

Sue Collin 12:18

Yes, exactly. Something you just said triggered this thought. I read something on LinkedIn the other day, I think you’ll be interested in this. A person was having an argument out loud to share, I guess, an argument he had with someone else and what he was writing was that the person he was talking to really did not like qualitative research. And, you know, sort of along the lines of what you’re talking about, he only wants hard numbers, and how can you make judgments if you’re only talking to 15 or 20 people, what have you.

So, the poster went on to say that he said to this person, you know, stakeholders like yourself sit in a room. Five, six, seven of you have a conversation, and you make decisions on strategy, where you’re going, and sometimes you do that without any kind of research, or really going heavy into the marketplace. You’re doing it based on you know, your lived experiences in business and in life. That’s a qualitative conversation you’re all having in that business meeting and a judgment. So, I don’t push qualitative per se. I mean, that’s what I do but I think everyone that I work with thinks about what’s appropriate for the business and research objectives. You can integrate qualitative research, either before quantitative if you’re doing it, or it could be after sometimes qualitative stands on its own, just like what quantitative does.

Tom Horne  13:41

Yeah, I think that’s a great argument you bring up and it just creates this visualization that almost all business decisions are made in a qualitative type of arena. You get your quantitative data, but it’s not that the board looks at it, sees the numbers, and just makes a decision based on it. They talk about it, they vet it, they look at it, they understand the nuances of it. That story just showed and really highlights the importance of that qualitative data. To anybody that’s saying qualitative is not important, the question you would follow that up with is, do you discuss data before making a decision? And if so, that’s a qualitative type of conversation based on your quantitative data. So, that’s important.

Sue Collin 14:24

Yes, I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean, there are times that companies, either because of limited time, limited budget, limited appetite, they’re going to do very little research, or they’re just going to do one piece of research. So, part of my job is to help them figure out and scope out, what can they do within the parameters they have. And what’s the appetite for doing any research at all, doing some, doing a little, doing two legs, doing four waves, you know, again, it totally depends on what you’re trying to figure out.

Tom Horne  14:58

So, when you’re building your quantitative research, you’ve got your x questions to try to solve. Quantitative sounds like it might also be able to help you understand if that box you’ve done for your research is big enough. Are those quantitative questions capturing everything you need? Qualitative sounds like it can be a check to that data, that you might not even know that you’re missing something when you’re trying to go out and collect the data you need and qualitative might show you other areas you need to dig into.

Sue Collin 15:28

Absolutely, it gets back to that ‘why’ versus the ‘what’. So, it might be that you’re planning to do some relaunch, or repositioning of your product or your service. The marketing group and the creatives come up with a whole bunch of concepts that they think are going to move the needle in terms of features and benefits and emotions. But you know what? It’s a crowded field. So, maybe we should do some qualitative first and pose amongst small groups of people and pose those concepts just to see get a sense of what’s the feeling out there, take the temperature. Is this moving it or not? And as you’re alluding to, we might find out that something is missing, and lo and behold, that quantitative research that’s going to come after, we’re going to add another concept in there because we potentially missed something.

On the flip side, let’s say you’re doing a quantitative study, and you figure out the different features that are most motivating for a new service, let’s say or even for current services, but because of time constraints and other things that were in the survey, you’re not really sure what’s motivating people to choose those features. So, aha, now we can go do some qualitative among the people who are really positive to those concepts, not necessarily same people, but you know, profiling those people and understanding what their motivations are, what was the tipping point, and what moves them.

Tom Horne  16:55

As with almost every podcast, way more interesting conversation than I even know it’s going to be going into it. Because my team, Laura, our producer, we talk about quantitative and qualitative research all the time. So, I was like, I kind of know about this, let’s help other people know about it. But I’m already learning something through this conversation. You’ve already opened up my mind, I’ve asked you five questions you didn’t know we’re coming. So, thank you for answering those and I apologize.

Sue Collin 17:19

Well, no, I’m always learning too. I mean, I am a student of learning, I don’t really know if that’s the right terminology. So, that’s one of the reasons I love having these conversations, like on a podcast or you know, with people who are not in my industry just to talk about what’s going on in business and so forth. Because you’re always learning something and adding it to your toolbox. That’s how I think about qual and quant. It’s a toolbox, what’s the right tool.

Tom Horne  17:46

I love that. Let’s take a quick break and then when we come back, I want to talk to some of the techniques that you utilize to make sure you’re collecting the best qualitative data and how to really open the subjects up so that you can really get that, that strong data set and those answers and understanding that you need. We’ll jump into that when we get right back.

. . .

Tom Horne  18:09

All right, we are here for the HR Hot Sauce. Best part of the show, as some might say. Sue are you ready?

Sue Collin 18:17

I am ready.

Tom Horne  18:18

Let’s do it. What’s the best job you have ever had?

Sue Collin 18:20

What I have right now followed by being an ice cream scooper.

Tom Horne  18:26

What’s the one phrase at work that drives you nuts?

Sue Collin 18:28

Are we aligned?

Tom Horne  18:30

Do you like working on rainy or sunny days?

Sue Collin 18:33

Both, it depends on what I need to accomplish that day.

Tom Horne  18:37

How can someone make your day at work?

Sue Collin 18:38

Please ask me what’s new or maybe just tell me we just sold a new project.

Tom Horne  18:46

Love it. Best useless skill?

Sue Collin 18:48

If I hear one word in a conversation, I can break out in song with either a popular song or something I make up.

Tom Horne  18:55

That’s a fun one.

Mild, medium, hot, or nuclear?

Sue Collin 18:58

Sub mild.

Tom Horne  19:00

Favorite interview question to ask or be asked?

Sue Collin 19:04

If you could tell your younger self something you did not know before, what would it be?

Tom Horne  19:10

Another great addition to our question library there.

Favorite song to bring you out of a funk?

Sue Collin 19:16

Tie, A Thousand Miles by Vanessa Carlton, or Greatest Day by Take That.

Tom Horne  19:23

And you are done with the HR Hot Sauce. Let’s get back to the show.

. . .

We are back having a great conversation about quantitative and qualitative research. But we’re really leaning into that qualitative side because in the world I’m in doing surveys helping understand employee engagement and sentiment. I’m constantly having these conversations where people are trying to unpack it and understand the importance of qualitative. So, I think Sue has done a great job about outlining that but I want to understand her experience and her techniques a little bit more now. So, Sue, can you talk about what are some best practices when you’re approaching collecting qualitative data?

Sue Collin 20:08

I think I said this before Tom and I’m going to start here again, it all starts with the moderator. So, let’s say it’s me and while I say that, it starts with me, it’s not about me, it’s about the respondent but I have to bring myself to the party and be fully present for the respondent. It’s their time, I want to show them that I’m showing up for them and that doesn’t just mean closing my email and all that. It means really tuning into them, making sure that they’re heard. Oprah Winfrey said something like, above all, everyone just wants to be heard, and so I try to accomplish that in every interview that I do. Being present is most important.

Establishing trust right away is very hard to do. Think about relationships in real life, they don’t often just, you know, at a snap of a finger, you’re best friends and all that. I don’t need to be best friends with people on an interview either. However, before they come on screen, I try and talk to them for a couple of minutes just to feel them out. Smile from the get-go, I would say 99% of the people that show up for interviews are excited to be there and that includes HR leaders by the way, to share what they’re thinking, and talk a little bit about them. You know, we’ll usually ask some kind of open-ended question as part of our screening to get at the conversation factor. How conversant are they? Are they appropriate? So, if they mentioned, you know, something fun if they were to write a book, what would it be about, I’ll ask them about that, how they chose that topic. So, they know right away, I was listening to them before I even met them. So, that’s some of the start of that and then give them space as we talk. Not everyone answers the same way. Not everyone processes the same way. Some people present themselves as introverts, some as extroverts, and I try and be authentic to myself, but also mirror them, so that they’re really comfortable. So, those are some of the basic things that I do and you know, above all, don’t make it a dry Q&A conversation. Just like you’re not making that with me, it’s a conversation. The difference is they’re doing most of the talking.

Tom Horne  22:20

That makes sense. Build the bridge, build the comfort, get people comfortable. For anybody listening, we do the HR Hot Sauce first just to kind of get the conversation warmed up and make everyone comfortable at the microphone. So, I don’t think that’s any big secret. But that’s some of the intention we had for the exact same reason. And along those lines, I will just interject, I was a little bit more nervous for this podcast than most because I’m interviewing somebody that interviews other people for a living. So, I was aware that some of the nuances, some of the things I’m just doing, are they good? Are they bad? So, I’ll just ask, how are we doing so far? Am I on point as a host or interviewer?

Sue Collin 23:02

I’m going to say you’re on point.

Tom Horne  23:07

Not pandering, I’ve just got to make sure I’m in the right headspace for the back half of this conversation. So, once you get the common ground, you’ve established that and I think all of that’s great, what are some of the other tips and tools that you can use to really get people to open up and to make sure it’s the right data to the questions that you’re asking?

Sue Collin 23:26

Well, I mean, it’s true for quantitative surveys as well, we think we have the right questions. So, you know, the beauty of qualitative is I can adjust as I go. If a question is not working out, for whatever reason and that happens, people don’t always understand. It doesn’t mean that the question uses big words, and I try and stay away from that, but it’s just not in their experience set. So, I’ve got to rephrase it, or give them an example of how to think about it without biasing or influencing their answer.

So, look at their body language. Do I get a sense that they’re understanding or not? Sometimes I will play back what they’ve said and then actually say, I want to make sure I understand this, you tell me if I have it right, and sometimes even if I have it right, they go on and further explain it. And that’s beauty because I get more out of them in terms of, you know, more of the rationale. Why are they saying what they’re saying? And then the last part of that since I mentioned the word ‘why’ is I try never to ask the word ‘why’. I don’t always succeed. You want to ask me why Tom?

Tom Horne  24:35

Tell me more about that Sue?

Sue Collin 24:38

You know, yes, you know exactly.

Tom Horne  24:40

When I felt it was a setup, my brain was going real hard there for a second.

Sue Collin 24:43

Yes, no, I always say this. I wish before my qualitative training that somebody had taught me not to ask why, especially as I was a teenager arguing with my parents over why do I have to do this or that? The word why or the question why can put people on the defensive. You never know what’s going to trigger that. So instead of asking why, we can ask what led you down that path or how’d you get to that decision? And again, it’s got to be a tone that’s not too forceful, just a curiosity type of thing.

So, there’s a lot of things to think about, even though I try and make it a conversation. I’ve got to keep, you know, control, I’ve got to keep control of the time. I’ve got to figure out as clients might be in the background, throwing additional questions at me when I’m going to interject them to not throw the respondent off track. You know, I think of it as a Broadway play Tom, where I’m going to Broadway on every single interview, right? I think I mentioned this to you when we first met. Except I am not the lead actor or actress, I’m the supporting player. My respondent is the lead and my goal is to make them look good, which really means enable them to share openly and candidly, with me. When you think of a Broadway play, which I’ve never produced, you’ve got to imagine it just like a podcast, there’s a lot of moving parts that you have to think about as you’re doing it. So, it’s really staying on top of all of that, and being prepared for it as best as you can.

Tom Horne  26:15

I’ve got two questions that came out of that comment. One is more in the conversation and one’s a total sidebar. As a New Yorker, do you have a favorite Broadway show you’ve seen of all time?

Sue Collin 26:27

That’s a tough one but what comes to mind is Rent.

Tom Horne  26:30

That’s classic. I’ve seen that.

Sue Collin 26:32

Wonderful and I’ve even seen college productions of it that were, dare I say nearly as good because the music and the feeling are absolutely wonderful, love it.

Tom Horne  26:42

I am glad I asked. The second question, when you’re doing the qualitative—and I always think of Mark, who’s on our team that does data collection over the phone at People Element, he talks about peeling the onion, where he’ll listen to responses, and then say something like, “You know, it sounds like Sue, you were a little upset when you said that” or “it sounds like there’s something else there”. You don’t want to project it, but you get better data when you can see the body language as you talked and when you can ask those further questions.

How do you go about taking those? You’ve already started to touch on it but are there any techniques when you have to go a layer deeper? What are some other techniques for quote, “peeling the onion” to get layers deeper?

Sue Collin 27:26

Well, I’ll actually, within limits, I actually comment on their body language. You know, I just want to take a step back when I mentioned that so nobody misunderstands what I’m saying here about body language. There are clients who observe the qualitative groups or one-on-ones live, others watch the videos, most probably if they’re doing anything are just reading the transcripts. So, you don’t see all the stuff that’s going on in the transcript. So, often, when I’m in a conversation, if someone has something on the body language that is really relevant for the context of what we’re saying, we’re talking about a new product or service, or how they feel as a customer, I’ll say out loud, “Okay, Tom, just for the record, I want to say that you smiled very broadly during that” and almost without fail, I do not have to say what’s going on with that smile, because you will automatically tell me. So, those are just little tricks and tricks not in trick or treat, like I’m trying to fool anyone. But ways to get people to say more if they have more to say. Always with the intent of explaining their rationale or their motivation, versus I just like coffee ice cream, which is good enough on its own in my book, but I really want to understand how’d they get to that over vanilla or chocolate.

Tom Horne  28:55

I really liked that nuance. And that’s what it is. When we talk surveys, it’s not rocket science, but doing good surveys, new hire surveys, exits, or engagement, it’s not rocket science—but doing it well is a combination of all these nuances. It’s 100 little things you have to do right and when you do, it’s that much better. That’s one of those, I thought I was answering a question that was already answered and you got another layer deeper that I didn’t even see coming. That was really great. Is there anything else we need to cover specifically? I want to get into tying this with HR a little bit more directly, even though I think 100% of what we’re talking about is totally in the all about HR wheelhouse. Tie a bow on some of the best practices, establish your connection, ask the right questions. I love that nuance about kind of going deeper as not saying why. What are some of the other pieces that you might want to mention before we get into kind of connecting this to outcomes?

Sue Collin 29:54

Two things that come to mind. I mentioned prior I think of it as a conversation, I really do. If I want to understand the human side of my conversation partner, a lot of times I don’t call it qualitative research, I call qualitative conversations a little nuanced there about how I approach it. I let the respondents see that I’m human as well. So, you know, if you have a conversation in your private life, and you mess up the word, or you go round in circles for a moment, you got to come back, I really don’t cover it up. I’ll say, “Oops, think I wanted to ask you this first hold that thought”, so make it human. The more human I am, within reason, and again, not making it about me, they’re going to be human back and be more forthcoming.

The second thing, just to tie the bow, as you say, is at the end of a conversation, I like to throw in what I call the bonus question. I don’t always know what that question will be but if I’m having somebody evaluate their experience with companies and their products or services, I might do some projective techniques at the end. If you were charged with selling company A or company B, tell me—company A, give me the good, the bad, and the ugly. And they love that because now you’re kind of making them the star of the show even further and telling them you know what, your opinion counts so much. I need you to go an extra step for me and they do that. So, questions at the end to wrap it up and put that bow on there can be really helpful.

Tom Horne  31:34

This is great, too, because everything we’re talking about isn’t just surveys, isn’t just research, these are all best practices for having a one-on-one with a team member for a coaching conversation or for any type of conversation. Qualitative, podcast, these are pretty universally good communication practices, right?

Sue Collin 31:57

I think so.

Tom Horne  31:58

Yeah. I mean, that’s the plan, right?

We do exit surveys, People Element has been an exit survey leader since 1994 and one of the things we talk about being a benefit is we have qualitative questions and quantitative questions. Analyzing the why from the qualitative and the quantitative data, looking at those two together paints a fuller picture. That’s true for all of our types of surveys but it really, for some reason, always comes out on exit type of surveys and I think an exit survey is really about the why. Why are you leaving? You’re not trying to save them, it’s “why are you leaving?” So, I think that’s probably why it comes up. Now that you’ve got your why, you’ve got your quantitative, talk to me a little bit about how to best go about looking at the two to form one singular full picture.

Sue Collin 32:57

You know, what are we trying to figure out? So if an HR leader was looking at a mass exodus over a short period of time, they might be looking at, on these exit interviews, what people are saying, realizing that the people are leaving. Some are leaving because there’s a better opportunity, some are leaving for that, and they want to get the heck out of town, right? So, is there a theme going on, that you can look at across, let’s say there’s ten people who left in the last two months. What’s the theme? Is there a theme? Where are those people going? If not the exact company, it might be a competitor. Is it the same kind of industry or not? What’s lacking? What did they really like and they hope to see in their next company? So even though they’re leaving, and it’s an exit, maybe you’ll also learn from that, what were the positive things that are going on? I mean, let’s face it, people don’t necessarily stay forever. So, sometimes it’s inevitable that people are going to leave. But I think, you know, quantitative might be a little easier to analyze, because you have numbers on a page and you can see, you know, you look at a graph or you look at a scatterplot or what have you. Qualitative there are different conversations that don’t necessarily follow the same arc. The moderators, they’re listening and hearing those themes over and over. So, I almost pose it as the HR person that’s charged with listening to those exit interviews, maybe having their own little cheat sheet of sorts of where those responses fall into. Which buckets do they fall into to help them structure what they are learning? I just want to throw one more thing out on this. Why wait until the exit interview? Why wait till it gets to that? So, there’s a whole other part of research that could be done that has nothing to do with an exit interview.

Tom Horne  35:08

Yeah, we talk about that a lot. Get some of that qualitative, often touchy-feely information early on and then you can see how that compares to the variance of what it looks like on the way out. You know what engaged them or what they were feeling, in their own words, when they join an organization and you know when they’re leaving. When you can aggregate that data, you can really understand a lot of why they chose you and why they’re leaving against those key drivers of that quantitative data that you have.

Sue Collin 35:47

Yeah, why are they staying? You know, maybe their annual survey is a stay survey. Why are they staying? Or instead of gripe sessions, you know, people get together and talk about what’s going on that needs improvements, flip it. Talk about how we want to bring you together across departments. Get some key people across departments that are chosen at random or whatever, get them in a room, because you just never know what somebody in accounting is going to say that’s going to help someone else in marketing, or that’s going to help someone else in some other aspect of the company. And then the employees are really engaged—this separate from an engagement survey, but really engaged in being part of the solutions and improving the company.

Tom Horne  36:42

I think that’s the key for anything you talk about, is engaging and getting your team to be a part of the solution. Sue, I can’t lie. This has been a really, really interesting conversation. April, if you’re listening, thank you for the introduction. I think this is really important for anybody in HR, anybody out there in working, anyone just talking to your wife, or your husband or your partner about what you’re going to do for dinner. This is just really important stuff, at least to me in my world. So, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about it.

Sue Collin 37:21

Thanks, Tom, you probably got a sense that I love talking with people and it’s been a pleasure meeting you and talking with you as well.

Tom Horne  37:28

So, if people want to talk to you more about this, or they’ve got some follow up questions, where can people find you? Are you on LinkedIn, or on Twitter? Do you have your own art page? Where can people find you?

Sue Collin 37:37

People can find me at SCollin@RTIresearch.com. Also on LinkedIn, and you’re gonna see me a lot there talking about all things qualitative and creative and so forth under Susan Collin.

Tom Horne  37:55

That’s great. We will share notes to all of that. This has been a fantastic episode of All About HR. Sue this has been great seriously, so much fun, so informative, and we hope to have you back down the line. Everybody, thank you so much for listening and learning, all about HR.

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