Is Do-It-Yourself Research Always a Bad Thing? (Hint: I offer some how-to tips.)

I was at one of those massive conferences recently and happened sit down at lunch in the trade show next to a fellow researcher. I didn’t know her so we traded topline credentials and demographic information–location, typical clients, specialties–by way of introduction. Then, as often happens these days, our conversation turned to the economy. So how’s business?

This researcher happens to work primarily in a particularly distressed segment of the U.S. economy. There is little money flowing to marketing research because there’s little money flowing to much of anything. Her customer’s customers don’t have discretionary money, so her clients (customers) don’t have any money to spend.

She assumed, I suppose, that I am a fellow foot soldier in the trenches, so proceeded to relay a war story about a former client with no budget who had decided to conduct his own focus groups. He reasoned that he still needed information and would have to find an alternative way of getting it by taking a do-it-yourself approach.

Not only was this researcher appalled that this particular client couldn’t scratch up the money to hire her for the work, she was also¬†adamant that non-researchers have no business conducting interviews and focus groups. She maintained that they are doomed to failure because their amateur attempts will be too elementary or that they will skew the discussion toward what they want to hear.

“Maybe,” I said. “But it also shows that they continue to value research, even if they can’t pay for it right now. They could just learn how much work it is to take all that talk, talk, talk and make meaning of the findings. You could also view it as the extension of the dialogue good companies have with their customers anyway.”

She wasn’t buying my argument and informed me that she refused, on principle, to help prepare the client with a few tips.

It’s too bad, really, because if this is a long-term client, she missed the opportunity to show that she valued the relationship with her client beyond just getting the next check. It wouldn’t have been difficult to show her expertise and offer some words of advice, for example, about how to ask follow-up questions to ensure that you keep listening and understanding instead of talking and explaining the company’s position.

Ironically, I had a client just last week facing a similar situation. She was headed to an annual meeting and had found time on the schedule to engage in a discussion about some critical issues. I coached her on ways to make sure she understands what people are saying with effective follow-up questions. Here are a few:

Ask for an example – “Can you give me an example of what you’re describing?” “Tell me about the last time you…”

Ask for a definition – “What do you mean by…” “You’ve said ‘x.’ By that do you mean ‘y’ or ‘z’ or something else?”

Ask for more information – “Tell me more about…”

Ask for an analysis – “What does that mean to you?” “How do you compare that with…”

Be quiet: Sometimes you just need to allow room for the participant to gather thoughts. People dislike silence so will rush to fill the void if you just let them.

Restate – “So let me see if I understand. You are saying that…Is that right?”

Propose a scenario – “What would you say/do if…”

Ask them to explain – “I don’t understand. Can you tell me more?”

My client ultimately conducted her discussion and was pleased she was able to gather useful information. No, she didn’t hire me for the project, but she also didn’t have the money to hire me. But I know that because I helped her be successful, she will remember me when her budget numbers are looking more optimistic and she has other research.

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