How inclusive is your consumer research?

At a conservative estimate there are 11 million disabled adults in the UK. There are also millions of people out there who might not see themselves as disabled, but who are finding that bits of them don't work as well as they used to! Many of these are Baby Boomers, who have reached the age when conversations are becoming more difficult to hear in a noisy environment, whose changing eyesight means that they now need specs for small print and who dislike queuing even more than they used to. Someone told me the other day that most marketing efforts are still aimed at consumers aged under 50. I hope this person was wrong, as by the end of the decade, 50% of the population will be over 50.

All businesses understand the importance of consumer research. Finding out about customer purchase patterns, behaviour and psychology informs the development of products and services and enables businesses to seek and hopefully gain competitive advantage. But how many businesses understand the importance of seeking the views of disabled people in their market research?

From our experience, not as much as they should - but why? I suggest that one reason that market research often does not engage with disabled people in a qualitative way is that most mainstream companies are not very confident about how to go about it. When profiling their research participants, they probably ask questions about whether they have a disability, but I doubt whether they see this aspect of the person a valuable source of market intelligence. And yet it is. We recently carried out a mystery shopping exercise for a major High Street service provider, which involved 100 people with a wide range of impairments. What this client felt was that if they got their services right for disabled people, they improved their services for everyone.

We were recently approached by a market research company with lots of big names as clients. One of these clients had engaged them to research the experiences of disabled people accessing specific services. This clearly successful and highly regarded market research company contacted us several weeks into the programme to ask for our help. They had set up focus groups of disabled people, which had to take place within a given timeframe, but had failed to find any participants. They admitted that they did not have experience of involving disabled people and were struggling to locate them. Fortunately, by pulling out all stops we were able to rescue the situation but it would have been much easier if we had we been involved at the beginning of the project. 

Engaging with disabled customers should be part of mainstream research. It's not difficult, if you know how to do it, and all businesses should know. Of course there are impairment specific things that need to be addressed, and it will require an understanding of these, but nothing that a good bit of training won't provide. It will require a change of mindset and thinking outside the usual box, but with experience and confidence, inclusive market research should become the ‘usual box’.

Then you need to know where to go to attract disabled people. Don’t fall into the group whose immediate thoughts are day centres, or perhaps social services. Of course the views and experiences of these service users are as important as any other disabled person, but you want to engage with a cross section of people with a wide range of experiences don’t you?  How are you going to reach disabled people who are captains of industry, IT specialists, competitive sportsmen, regular on-line shoppers, and international travellers? You don’t want to exclude anyone who is prepared to share their customer experience with you and who, if their needs are met, will spend their money with you.

Over 50s account for 40% of consumer spending, 60% of total savings and 80% of UK wealth and the government puts the value of the disabled £ at around £80 billion. I don’t see how businesses can afford not to engage with older and disabled people when carrying out their market research. Isn’t it obvious?


© Mary-Anne Rankin