Lessons Learned by Leading 6000 Focus Groups in 40 Years [Part One]
A recent e-mail from a good friend contained a quote from Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker: “When you lose in life, don’t lose the lesson.”
On June 1, 2021, RIVA celebrated 40 years as a qualitative market research and training company. Like many small businesses, the process looks more like a rollercoaster than a straight road from point A to point Z. We survived 17 months of no business after 9/11, requiring us to lay off two-thirds of the staff. After the market crash of 2008, RIVA lost revenue, and required a corporate restructure. Now we are surviving and thriving while navigating a pandemic.
In looking back over the last 40 years as a company and as a researcher, I’ve certainly “lost” a few times on projects and certainly suffered “loss” with regard to running a business. When I think about it, those were the times when I learned the most! When projects or a business goes smoothly, the whole process feels effortless, like the lights turning green just as you hit each intersection, all the way from your house to the airport.
When the qualitative research red lights stopped me, metaphorically, each one served up a surprise – I didn’t look to “learn a lesson” at the time. This essay points to six key lessons I learned on the long journey from my first group of respondents on a RIVA project in 1981 to my world of market research and training today.
Lesson # 1: Trust your own judgment.
Lesson # 2: Put everything in writing.
Lesson # 3: No one remembers the last group you led.
Lesson # 4: Maintain research rigor but not rigidity.
Lesson $ 5: Laugh early – it will all be funny later.
Lesson # 6: Expect and embrace change.
My first ever focus group as a freelancer taught so many lessons: Client recruited 16 respondents, and they knew each other. The topic, both sensitive and volatile, took place in the client’s boardroom while he listened through a wall by holding a glass to his ear. I served as audio tech, requiring me to remember to turn over the cassettes on a Sony recorder, to record on the B side after one hour.
In my haste to get this “first paid project,” I suspended all my good judgment and surrendered to the client’s wishes, even though I knew those wishes did not meet any “best practices” I had been taught: Never let the client recruit; respondents should never know each other and ideal group size is 6-8.
So, Lesson # 1 provided a plethora of lessons that have served me well for 40 years! I never want another night like that again. I didn’t trust my judgment and “sold out” as a researcher, causing me a boatload of anguish. As my group tally has increased over the years, I have never again surrendered my good judgment as a qualitative researcher. I am clear that I’m the research instrument and ultimately the success or failure of a group event rests solely with me as the architect of the study design and implementation. Some examples of trusting myself and not being a research “lackey” included doing the following:
a. Threatening to walk out when client wanted me to wear an earpiece while moderating so they could tell me what questions to ask next, not trusting me to ask the best questions to help them hear all the news from respondents.
b. Refusing to continue moderating later groups in a project when the client asked me to “sell” the product while moderating the first one
c. Terminating a project mid-stream upon discovery that the client intended to use focus groups to pre-qualify prospects for future sales calls
d. Keeping a consumer who had cerebral palsy who attended an IDI as a “qualified respondent” [she used the product under discussion]. The client sent me a note when she introduced herself with a “pay and send” order, and I balled up the note and threw it in the trash and kept interviewing her.
e. Crying along with a group of widows, now thrown back into grief mode while talking about insurance payments they received when husband died. Client sent a note to terminate the group discussion because of high emotions, and the discomfort it caused the clients behind the mirror. I did not honor that request and learned that I could cry and still ask effective questions.
f. Pretending to be a cigarette smoker for a smoker’s group so as not to alienate the respondents and affect their commentary about package design [respondent smoking encouraged in the session by client request].
g. Including a blind respondent in a TV ad test rather than dismissing her upon request by the client, since she technically “watched TV” with her family and blindness not mentioned as a specific “do not recruit” screener item.
The second lesson: Putting everything in writing, makes good sense from a business standpoint but it also saves time and confusion. Early on, it has been a RIVA policy, even if the client doesn’t request it, to send a written proposal for every bid request we receive. We send confirmation letters to clients and facilities and special letters to facilities to outline what specific services are desired, to prevent misunderstandings. This lesson has been reinforced many times and a place to stand when clients question unexpected outcomes.
A moderator colleague of mine told me a harrowing story. She booked a facility using the central location for a national chain, paid the deposit, led the groups, and on her way out, after the last group, she said: “I’ll take the audio tapes with me now.” The hostess said: “You never said you wanted the groups taped – we don’t have that request in your papers.” My colleague said the comment floored her, erroneously expecting that every room rental at every facility in America included as a minimum: table, chairs, a mirror, and audiotaping. She has learned to put it all in writing.
We make phone calls to client and facilities and often follow up with e-mail, recapping key points. The written materials not only keep all the team players apprised of all elements of the study but also create a paper trail to handle issues that may arise as the project unfolds. We’ve been tested on this point and I’m happy to say, we are seldom found wanting.
Third lesson: “No one remembers the last group you led.” This one has been the most difficult. Like most moderators, I’m always comparing my current work to my past work and judging myself on how well I’m doing. I’m giving myself a “grade” for my work and I’m often looking for ways to streamline efforts, work more efficiently, keep research techniques fresh, and provide my clients with high quality services.
I remember an incredible research group where my questions and probes reached a stellar level, and I finished the group with client praise for my work and for reaching the study purpose. It is hard to remember that my next client will not have seen that set of groups and have no knowledge about my exceptional group. I have to continually remember that I’m only as good as my next group.
Maintain research rigor but not rigidity, Lesson # 4, took me a number of years to learn. As a former quantitative researcher, I had been trained to ask questions the same way every time and to be crystal clear on what hypotheses were being tested, as well as to never forget the dependent and independent variables in the study.
Qualitative research is more exploratory in nature and a true question is one to which you don’t already know the answer. Every group is different, every set of respondents is unique. It is like being on a high tightrope, without a net, holding only a long pole for stability and wearing tiny ballet slippers to grip the tightly stretched line. It has taken a bit of time to master some unique skills, but now I have learned to live without a sense of closure from group to group, knowing the final report is the first place to seek that closure.
I know now that the guide I write will not have all the questions asked or answered in every focus group in the series. I now know that it is more important to follow the energy in the room when a goldmine is uncovered, rather than asking people to hold their thoughts for the part in the guide where those questions were planned.
No longer am I upset when a group doesn’t start at 6 on the dot and that it is my job to start the group when the right respondents are seated in the room, working more on doing what is right, not easy, to make that happen. I have also learned that it is fine to start a group later than planned but must always end that group on time!
Metaphorically, I’ve learned to hold the reins of my research horse lightly and to give him his head as we trot along, and to pull up tightly if I want to change directions and he doesn’t.
Written by: Naomi Henderson, CEO & Co-Founder
Stay tuned for part two next week!