A well-defined problem is a problem already half-solved. The right definition of a customer research problem sets the direction for the entire project. Although every researcher and analyst understands the importance of correctly defining the problem, it is not always so easy to uncover where the problem really resides. Moreover, it’s vital to uncover the root of the problem so that you’re tackling the entirety and not just treating a symptom of a problem.

Let’s look at a simple example. A steel manufacturing company conducted market research in order to develop a product. The new product, a commercial sealant which targeted contractors, received a cold reception simply because of an improper problem definition.

The steel company’s management hoped to match a similar product already provided by a competitor, thus, all research was focused on measuring purchaser preferences for different applications and conditions.

If the research was focused on changes in contractor preferences, they might have created a sealant that could capture more buyers instead of trying to replicate a product that already exists. The bottom line was that the steel company did not ask the right questions and were too quick to look for direct answers.

Now, let’s backtrack a bit and use one of the methodologies we defined last week. The company’s management’s found that their market share was shrinking while a competitor’s market share was climbing.

They utilized Five Whys as follows:

Why did the competitor’s market share expand?
Answer: because they introduced a new sealant that was highly appealing to contractors.

Why could the rival sealant divert purchasers from the steel company?
Answer: because contractors preferred the ease of application so they switched to the competitor’s product.

Why did purchasers like the new application features of the rival product?
Answer: because new conditions in the sealant market prompted contractors to seek a product that would save time.

Why did contractors stop buying what they used to buy from the steel company?
Answer: because the rival product fulfilled their need sooner.

Why did the steel manufacturing company lose market share?
Answer: because it did not keep track of contractor preferences and had no new products to keep and attract new buyers.

Properly and clearly defining a customer research problem can mean the difference between an actionable solution and a dead end.