Don’t say “Sorry, we didn’t ask that,” instead let the people shine through

It’s among the most uncomfortable moments a market researcher can have.  You’re standing in front of clients presenting the results of a study.  All eyes are fixed on you.  They’re listening to your every word.  And an unexpected question from someone in the audience gets put to you on what the study has learned about a particular topic.   But the study didn’t ask about that topic.  It wasn’t included in the questionnaire.  You may be tempted to take the easy way out and put the responsibility back on your client and remind them they had a chance to raise that issue back when the study was being designed.  That would be a way to get out from underneath the unexpected question that many researchers would take.   But there’s another answer that will make you look like a star, and not somebody who squirms away from unexpected questions.

And that answer goes something like this: “We listened to the comments of 400 people when they were asked their thoughts on three different areas very much related to your question.  They had plenty of opportunities to raise that same issue (or concern) a number of times and it was mentioned by just two people.  And here’s exactly what those two people had to say…”    This answer gets the client some good feedback on their issue and it prevents you from looking like a researcher who missed the mark on something.

The way to be prepared to give this answer does not require methodological genius.  It requires writing some open end questions that are just specific enough to stay on target, but not so specific that a respondent doesn’t get to say what’s on their mind.  It also requires spending a few hours going through all the open end responses.    Yes, it requires getting into the nuts and bolts, into the weeds, into the details.  But before you claim your time is too valuable for such a chore, consider that spending time with verbatim comments will prepare you for a presentation in ways beyond how the numbers can prepare you.

Verbatims do even more

You’ll find that after you are armed with many particularly insightful verbatim comments that your presentation of the data will take on far greater impact as well.  It is very good advice to say that the way to present data is to tell a story about what it all means.  Nobody wants to be subjected to page after page of just numbers.  And your story about what it all means will be a much better story if it is peppered with timely and relevant real comments from real people.  You’ll have much more confidence that you really know what respondents have to say about the study’s objectives and what they have to say about plenty of other things too.  In short, you’ll be much better prepared to deliver an outstanding presentation.

And as far as a deliverable to a client, I’m not talking about a collection of just a couple dozen comments.    It should be a thick stack of many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of comments from a quantitative study.  But you can’t just present a big collection of random comments.   They need to be organized by category and quantified.   That’s right – quantified.  How many people said this type of comment, and how many people said that.  About 50 different categories of comments is typical.   Focus groups can’t do that reliably enough to make statistically sound projections to a larger population.   And if you do the coding and classifying yourself you’ll be left with a supplemental file to your presentation deck that is much more valuable than a few pages in your stack of data tabulations that say “open ends.”  After all, those tables reduce the rich and often colorful verbatim comments to a listing of categories just a few words long.  Those tables most definitely do not provide the same perspective as getting into actual respondent words to hear for yourself.

Watch how they are drawn to it

When preparing for a client presentation you probably have painstakingly built slides that expertly display your statistical prowess.  Many researchers like to show off conjoint analysis and regression models.  It makes all that time studying statistics pay off.   (I’m no different.  I like to take a client through cluster analysis.  And I love to hear questions like “why did you decide to do discrete choice analysis?”)  But if you look around the room after a presentation is over, you may notice something interesting.  Among the back-up materials that were created to support the main presentation deck, it is the collection of actual respondent comments that everybody wants to pore through.   After all, this is what real people have to say in real words.  It is a level of communication that many people need to experience before they can be truly persuaded.   You’ll see how one corporate VP will peruse the verbatims for just a minute or two and then nudge another corporate VP and say ‘listen to this one.’   I’ve even known of a client who didn’t bother to keep and file his copy of the summary report, but he was careful to keep his copy of the verbatim comments from customers.   He wanted to feel a closer connection to his company’s customers.

So the client who likes focus groups because he/she needs to hear it from the horse’s mouth will be satisfied and the client who is only convinced by quantitative proof will also be satisfied.   So a quant study has an element of qualitative findings, and those qualitative findings have an element of quantitative analysis.  The goal is to make the presentation and analysis come alive and deliver the best of what both types of research can deliver.



  1. […] to your every word. And an unexpected question from someone in the audience gets put to you on what the study has learned about a particular topic. But the study didn’t ask about that topic. It wasn’t included in the questionnaire. You may be […]

Speak Your Mind