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Raising the voice of unheard consumers

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A Curtin research group dedicated to empowering neglected consumers is helping service providers drive continuous improvement in their organisations.

Like many western societies, Australia is guilty of systemic snubbing of our more vulnerable citizens. One of the largest groups is the aged – and it’s a common lament that as we become older we become invisible, to business, government and community groups.

“However, Australia has an ageing population, which means that older consumers are an increasingly prominent consumer group,” explains Dr Graham Ferguson, from Curtin’s School of Management and Marketing.

“Yet they remain overlooked, which leads to poor service standards and levels of choice, and consumer frustration.”

He says that disabled consumers and those with mental health issues also have to work hard to be heard. Recognising that the situation is not only detrimental to these consumer groups, but also is unrecognised by most marketers, in 2018 he established the Unheard Consumers Research Group.

Over the past two years, the group has completed a significant amount of work for Western Australian residential care, home care and retirement village service providers.

“One provider had been undertaking quantitative client surveys for many years, and came to us because the results hadn’t facilitated continuous improvement,” Dr Ferguson says.

“It enables service providers to address any shortcomings in quality standards and drive continuous improvement.”

“They needed a more comprehensive, qualitative approach. It enables them to hear the core essence of the issues, and the positives, in the client’s own words – and to quickly take action.”

He brought together researchers within Curtin Business School to undertake phenomenological data collection and analysis, to capture the authentic experience of the organisation’s consumers and their families, and other stakeholders. The project outcomes delivered a positive impact, and word spread about the expertise of Curtin’s ‘Lived Experience’ team.

The team now has six research staff working with a range of aged care and disability services providers.

“Each year, we interview about 1,800 consumers, and provide valid and reliable insights to service providers – which they’ll use to address any shortcomings in quality standards and drive continuous improvement.

“And clients welcome us back to hear about their current experiences, in our annual follow-up research. It enables us to document how things have changed, with comparison metrics tracking performance between locations and services.”

Further strengthening our research focus in this area, in 2020 Curtin became one of eight universities partnering in the national Cooperative Research Centre for Longevity. Dr Ferguson hopes the initiative will attract postdoctoral researchers and research students to the Curtin team, which will ensure further partner-driven research into key industry issues.

“Plus, we’ll have larger data sets and research outcomes to inform specific service practices, sector behaviour and government policy, and to improve social narratives more broadly.”

Better products and services

By capturing authentic lived experiences, the Unheard Consumer Research Group can also encourage the development of better products and services for under-acknowledged consumer groups.

For example, one team member is exploring technologies that help people maintain their independence.

“Smart-home technologies and AI sensor lights can be a huge help to the elderly, and automated media appliances can reduce the sense of isolation and keep people engaged,” Dr Ferguson says.

He explains that many consumers are ignored in the technology development process, because companies aren’t interested in tailoring products for those who are less ‘influential’ in the market place.

“Most marketing targets the young and healthy as aspirational models. And when marketing is targeted to older people, the representations often leave them feeling insulted.

“This needs to change – we need marketers to recognise unheard consumers and speak to them in authentic ways.”

The boomers are coming

The reasons for the under-acknowledgement of older consumers are complex. And perhaps because Australia’s pre-war generation coped with a lot of hardship, they seem less inclined to speak out about injustice and inequity they experience – particularly women.

But the boomers are coming.

“Consumers over the age of 60 have the highest net worth of any age group. They’re spending more, and they’re expecting more,” Dr Ferguson warns.

“Boomers are the most prosperous generation, and they’ll want to maintain their influence and their independence as they age.”

But the boomer voice alone won’t change the overarching issue. To empower the voice of ‘the unheard’, the fundamental challenge is to supplant longstanding, negative social narratives.

For older Australians, that process may now have momentum, with the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety concluding its two-year inquiry.

The royal commission – the highest form of public inquiry available – was launched in 2018, following the Australian media’s comprehensive exposé of substandard service, and even abuse, in disability and aged care settings. Its just-released final report is scathing of Australia’s aged care system, concluding that the system fails to meet the needs of our older, vulnerable, citizens.

Corroborating Dr Ferguson’s concern about society’s unheard consumers, the report confirms that “the absence of a strong consumer voice is a notable feature of aged care”.

The commissioners also note that, more broadly, new models of aged care must facilitate a change in the community’s view of older people, and promote growing older as a “normal part of life – as a stage of life that holds the potential for happiness and fulfilment”.

Dr Ferguson says this is a critical concept, that the new aged-care model must derive from the whole of society – including the marketing industry. At Curtin, he’s helping to address the challenge not only through research, but also in teaching and learning, by feeding his research team’s outcomes back into the classroom.

“We show students that marketing theory and practices don’t recognise or address the ageing consumer. We introduce our research process and the needs that are revealed, and what the outcomes mean for service and product providers.”

“Of course, this offers a cache of opportunities and potential for innovation.”

Learn more about the Unheard Consumers Research Group


Researcher profile

Dr Graham Ferguson is a researcher and senior lecturer in the School of Management and Marketing. His research interests encompass social change, lived experience, phenomenology, disregarded consumers and consumer wellbeing. He also leads the Unheard Consumer Research Group at Curtin Business School.

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