Research Anecdotes

“We don’t know what we have to say to sway them. How do we turn prospects into customers?”
An unusual focus group technique yields results

Typically, we try to prevent respondents from trying to convince each other that they’re right. We try to neutralize the “group dynamic.” As we explain to them, in the “real world,” people don’t spend an hour and a half in a focus group discussing the product. And we want to know what their opinions were before they came into the focus group room.

However, there are some situations where the opposite is true. When a client is developing marketing communications for an existing product or service, they want to know what points will sway their potential customers. What are the arguments we need to make that will cause the prospect to say “why didn’t you say so? Now that I know that, of course I’m interested.”

In these situations, we put together focus groups with a mix of enthusiastic current customers and non-customers. And we have the enthusiasts persuade the non-customers. Not only do we learn what elements convince the prospects, we also see what questions they ask – what are their areas of concern. These groups invariably yield rich results.

And by the way, the same technique works as a method to help weaker salespeople. Conduct groups with weaker salespeople together with a few star salespeople, and let the stars tell the others how they did it.

“Talk to the employees. But don’t tell me they need to be paid more money.”
Clarifying objectives with clients

A company hired us to conduct research with their employees to improve retention. These employees had a very specialized job that required a great deal of training. The company had calculated that, for every employee who left the company, they had to spend $80,000 to hire and train a new employee. Obviously, they had a great incentive to improve retention. They were wondering if they should be searching for a certain type of employee who would be more likely to stay with the company. And they felt that they couldn’t pay employees any more than they were currently paying, so they told us they didn’t want to hear that answer.

We asked the client, “what if we found that, if you hired only red-headed employees, your retention problem would disappear, because those employees will stay no matter what? Would you change your hiring policies?” The answer was no, because there were not enough of these employees in the market even before we limited the field to red-heads. So we learned that our research would have to find ways to increase employee satisfaction. We explained this to the client, and told them that compensation was very likely to come up, but that we would also explore any other ways in which employee satisfaction could be increased.

Of course, compensation came up very early in the research. It turned out that these employees were paid less than they could get elsewhere, and this is in a market where, if they quit today, they could have a new job tomorrow! But we also learned that compensation could be structured differently (for example, paying for certain types of overtime, for which employees currently weren’t getting paid extra, and which they felt was unfair). And we uncovered various non-monetary changes that could be made which would make the employees feel better about their jobs and about their employer.

Our report covered all of these findings, and pointed out that, if the client had the opportunity to spend $10,000 in order to save $80,000, that might be a wise move to make!

“I want to know what people think of our website – both how it works and also the overall concept.”
We came up with a hybrid methodology for more effective website research

When researching a website, it’s rare to find a client who only wants to know about website usability. Rather, companies want to know everything users think of their site – how it works, what it offers, how it compares with the competition both online and offline, etc.

To address these needs, we’ve come up with a hybrid methodology for website research. We conduct a few days of one-on-one interview and observation sessions, where we learn about users’ individual reactions to the site and gain detailed information about usability, as well as a number of focus groups in which each respondent has a computer connected to the Internet, independently browses the site being tested (as well as competitive sites), and then the sites are discussed as a group. This research design gives us the benefits of both worlds: we make sure we hear individual opinions and replicate the individual web-surfing experience, but we also benefit from the group dynamic and the greater number of respondents in the focus group format. This enables us to gain deeper insights that individual respondents might not be able to articulate without the stimulus of the group discussion.

“But if the software goes down, my whole business would be paralyzed.”
Category knowledge helps obtain additional insights

It’s important that the moderator understand the client’s field of business. For example, when we conducted research with business owners to discuss using an ASP model for accounting software (that is, businesses would use the Internet to do their accounting), respondents were concerned that if there were a problem with the service, their businesses would be paralyzed. On the spur of the moment, the moderator brought up the point that the provider could have redundant systems to pick up the slack when something went wrong, whereas, in a single business, if the server is down, it’s down. Respondents found this argument persuasive, so we learned that this was an important point for the company’s marketing communications.

“That sounds like it came from the Iraqi Ministry of Information!”
Dealing with difficult respondents

We find that conducting focus groups with doctors can be challenging. Typically, doctors are used to having people listen to their every word and being able to speak without interruption. However, in a focus group with 7 or 8 other doctors, we sometimes need to cut someone off to make sure all the topics are covered and everyone gets heard.

When a respondent in a focus group of doctors is disruptive, it puts the moderator in a tricky situation. These people are used to being treated with great respect, so we need to get them under control, but do it politely.

We had that situation when presenting some marketing concepts to a group of doctors. In response to the first concept, one doctor said “that sounds like it came from the Iraqi Ministry of Information! I don’t believe that.” The moderator replied “well, let’s turn that around. How would you suggest they say this?” The respondent had no answer, but continued with increasingly negative comments which were unpleasant for the rest of the group and completely unconstructive.

In a regular consumer group, this might be one of those rare situations where the moderator would have the respondent removed from the group. But since these were doctors, that might upset the rest of the group – they might feel that the respondent wasn’t getting the respect he deserved. The moderator thought quickly, turned to the respondent and said in a very solicitous tone, “would you prefer to leave” – where his tone implied that it must be difficult for such a great doctor to deal with such a mundane issue such as marketing. It worked! The doctor was taken aback, and said “no… I just say what I think.” But after that, he was the nicest respondent you could ever want!