as published in Marketing News, August 14, 2000

Let Experts Decide in
Marketing Research

Research:  No backseat driving

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 since decay has eaten away at your tooth. You disagree with the dentist and tell him to do an inlay since this is what you have had in the past and it has well worked for you. Or, you hire caterers for a party, and in reviewing the suggested list of menu items, 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 caterers about this, and they tell you it is not an item they recommend because they have had poor responses on it in the past. You decide to have this dish, anyway.

In both situations, you have contracted with specialists with experience and expertise in a specific area. Presumably, you hired them because of their capabilities and the success you expect from their services. However, in both situations, you chose to ignore their professional recommendations based on your own experience. The chances are that you will be proven wrong in the end, which will not foster a good relationship with either the dentist or the caterers.

Many companies do the same thing when working with moderators in planning qualitative research projects. The company often will go to great pains to find the best moderator for its organization, using RFP's, Web inquiries, personal interviews and peer recommendations. But when the actual project is conceptualized, the client contact is unwilling to accept the recommendations of the research professional regarding the overall methodology, approach or content flow -- often placing the moderator in a difficult situation, as she can be forced to conduct research not consistent with what she feels is the optimal way to implement the study. The end result is that the moderator can either resign from the assignment or conduct a study that she feels will be substandard, which easily can result in a disappointing outcome and a damaged client-moderator relationship -- another situation where everyone loses.

Client organizations can avoid this situation without compromising their own needs and giving in to the researcher's recommendations that they feel are not in the project's best interest. First, the client must carefully research the person or organization hired to conduct the research to make sure they have the experience and expertise to provide more than simply moderating a group. Then, the client should obtain a detailed proposal from the researcher outlining the approach to the assignment and the rationale.

Next, give the researcher some leeway on how the project should be handled, and recognize that this person might have much more experience with the approach being considered. To this end, recognizing that the objective is to obtain the needed information rather than win the methodology battles is essential. And 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 take this last recourse, be sure you are not making a change to protect your damaged ego rather than to find a more effective research professional for your assignment.)

Whenever you hire a professional, the best course is to give the individual or organization the benefit of the doubt when it comes to issues in which they have special expertise. While this does not mean that the client should relinquish the role as "the client," it often is better to listen to the expert. Remember, he who acts as his own attorney has a fool for a client.

Mr. Greenbaum is president, Groups Plus, a focus group research and consulting company. He moderates more than 150 groups per year in a variety of product and service categories.

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