Making Your Small-Business Research Actionable

By James M. Neckopulos

Surveys, focus groups and other primary research have an important role to play in helping organizations improve their customer experience and drive growth in the small-business market. However, to generate meaningful output, these research approaches or methods need to be actionable. Taking the right approach to primary research can greatly increase the likelihood that it will provide actionable insights and meaningful benefits.

Five factors are critical to making this happen:

  1. Engage with internal stakeholders early and often.
    When designing research, understanding the goals, priorities and issues of the users of that research is critical. Creating a survey in line with internal stakeholders’ needs and understanding how they want to use it will instill early buy-in. Reviewing preliminary findings with key stakeholders and working with them to define implications is also important. For instance, if stakeholders share that there is no additional capacity in their technology budget, the research should focus on identifying other areas of the business that might be improved to address their problem or opportunity.
  2. Identify clearly the key issue and desired outcome.
    Conducting research without first determining its purpose or goals reduces the likelihood that the findings will be actionable. Therefore, it is important to be clear about the problem to be addressed or the potential opportunity. Similarly, agree on the definition of success at the outset of the research; doing so helps to make sure the results provide specific understanding of the appropriate actions to take. For example, if a bank’s problem is losing business deposits to competitors, a definition of success for research might be “identifying the underlying reasons for why customers are leaving and the specific actions the bank can take to retain and grow customers’ deposits.”
  3. Start with actionable hypotheses and design a survey that will validate them.
    Before designing any research, it is important to think about which insights could help the bank address its problem or opportunity most effectively. By starting with actionable hypotheses—what you think the answers might be—research questions can be designed to confirm or invalidate those hypotheses. As a result, research findings will be clear and actionable. Referencing the example above, researchers could hypothesize that “customers are moving their deposits because other banks are willing to grant them lines of credit.”
  4. Communicate survey findings in an easy-to-understand, memorable and relevant way.
    Even the best research will be of little value if it is not understood, remembered or relevant. When the audience does not know what a survey’s findings mean for them (“So what?”) or what they should do about them (“What now?”), it is unlikely they will change their thinking or take action. Using a mix of qualitative and quantitative research allows one to communicate the “So what?” and “What now?” in a more memorable way. Qualitative research, like focus groups, is best used as an exploratory tool and is helpful in providing memorable quotes or adding color to quantitative research findings. Quantitative research adds measurement to qualitative findings and, if done correctly, can be used to extend the research findings to a broad population. Using both qualitative and quantitative approaches makes it possible to communicate statistically reliable findings that are also vivid enough to be remembered (and acted upon) by the audience.
  5. Assess whether actions taken actually “moved the needle.”
    Understanding whether actions taken based on research had the intended effect (i.e., created the desired outcomes) is key. Successful outcomes create buy-in for future research while unsuccessful outcomes highlight potential areas for improvement (i.e., research design, action planning, project execution, etc.).

As the pace of innovation and change accelerates across the banking industry, it is more important than ever to understand one’s current business environment and adapt accordingly. Primary research can play an important role in gaining that understanding. By making “actionability” a core consideration when designing research, an organization can successfully move from insight to action. 


Jim Neckopulos is an executive director in Ernst & Young’s (EY) Banking Practice and is based in San Francisco. John Hansen and Matt Daruwala, senior managers in EY’s Banking Practice, contributed to this article.