Are You Leveraging The Expertise
of Your Focus Group Moderator?

Published in Quirk's Marketing Research Review , January, 2008

 by  Thomas L. Greenbaum

Consider this: You are about to undergo a dental procedure and the dentist indicates that you need to have a crown due to the decay that has eaten away at your tooth.   You disagree with the dentist and tell him to do an inlay because that's what you've had in the past and it's worked for you very well.

Or you hire a caterer for a party and they provide you with a suggested list of menu items.   In reviewing this recommendations, you think about a recent party you attended where they served a wonderful dish, but it does not appear on the caterer's list.   You ask the caterer about this and they indicate it is not an item they normally recommend, as they haven't had good responses to it in the past.   You decide to have this dish anyway as it was so tasty at the other party.

In both of the above situations, you have contracted with a specialist who has experience and expertise in a specific area.   It is assumed that you went to the individual because of their capabilities, and you are anticipating a positive outcome from your involvement with them.   However, in both situations you chose to ignore their professional recommendations based on your own prior experience.   The chances are that you will be proven wrong in the end, and this will not serve to foster a good future relationship with either the dentist or the caterer.

Many companies do the same thing when working with moderators in planning qualitative research projects.   The organization often will go to great pains to find the best moderator for their organization, using RFP's, Web inquiries, personal interviews and recommendations from peers to ensure that they make the best decision.   Then when the actual project is conceptualized, the client contact is unwilling to accept the recommendations of the research professional relative to the overall methodology, the approach or the content flow.   This often places the moderator in a very difficult situation, as he or she can be "forced" to conduct research in a way that is less than optimal. The moderator is left with two choices: either resign from the assignment or conduct a study that he or she feels will be substandard. The end result of this exercise could easily be a disappointing outcome and a damaged client-moderator relationship.   It's a lose-lose for everyone.

What then, can client organizations do to avoid this situation without compromising their own needs, and giving in to recommendations of the research professional that they feel are not in the best interest of the project?

First, it is essential that the client company carefully research the person/organization hired to conduct the research, to ensure that the supplier/consultant has expertise to do more than simply moderating a group.

Second, obtain a detailed proposal from the researcher that outlines the approach to the assignment and the rationale for that approach.

Third, give your researcher some leeway on how the project should be handled, and recognize that this person might have much more experience with the research approach than you do.   To this end, it is essential to recognize that the objective is to obtain the information you need, not to win methodology battles.

Finally, try to allocate sufficient time to plan a project so that you can change research professionals if you and your supplier cannot agree on the best way to execute a project. However, if you decide to do this, be sure you are not making a change simply to protect your damaged ego.   Instead, you should be doing it to find a more effective research professional for your assignment than the person you had originally retained.

Benefit of the doubt

Whenever you retain a professional to work for you, it is generally better to give the individual/organization the benefit of the doubt when it comes to issues where they have special expertise.   While this does not suggest that the client organization should relinquish its role as "the client," it does clearly indicate that it is often better to listen to the expert rather than try and be one yourself.   As the saying goes, he who acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client.

Thomas L. Greenbaum is President of Groups Plus