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What I Learned from Conducting Over 62,000 Interviews

Not job interviews but research interviews with thousands upon thousands of patients, parents, health care professionals, kids, business owners, IT people, producers and directors, small and large business owners . . . conducted for a broad array of corporations across pharmaceutical and biotech companies to consumer products and services to banking and telecommunications.

The questions we asked probed at why people buy; how they think, what drives their decisions. They were about conditions, drugs and therapies as well as their feelings, fears and resentments towards becoming ill. They were about deciding on a vacation, a new pair of hot shoes, ice cream and pimple cream.

For the most part, people were talkative and apparently fully committed to discussing these issues. But below it all there was also an undercurrent of restraint. There’s only so much people will tell you in response to direct questions before they decide to pull back, sometimes consciously at other times because of a vague feeling that there’s only so much they should reveal. It’s a risky business to say what you really think and feel . . . or is it?

What I enjoy about conducting marketing research is that it’s an opportunity for a WIN WIN. Real people are provided with an opportunity to say what is really on their minds and in their hearts and corporations are incented to give it to them in the way their customers would most enjoy receiving it. The company succeeds by giving great products and services which people try and then buy again. The consumers get their needs met and attaches loyally to the product.

But unless you’re really sensitive in how you present the issues, in how you ask there’s a strong tendency for your audiences to do one of two things. If they are naturally compliant, easy going folk they will say what they think you want to hear. If they tend to be more skeptical or defiant by nature, they will say No, even though in the real world their votes may well be in your favor. In each scenario it’s not how they think, feel or behave in real time during a decision making moment This Social Desirability Bias throws a heavy monkey wrench into the equation. It can be a huge problem, because big dollar marketing decisions are based on what corporate researchers learn from the consumers they query.

What’s the solution?

Let’s back up for a minute . . . Years ago, when I started conducting research as a college student after school, at the age of 18, I was an eager fledgling interviewer. I followed questionnaire flow charts, reading the questions verbatim, exactly as they were written, exactly as I was instructed to do, so that the data would be predictive. I was soaking it all in, learning. Such a perfect job for someone who had been asking why since she was able to talk.

After administering hundreds of questionnaires - in the right way I was trained to read them - I began to look at the questions themselves. I wondered about them because some I thought might give answers that could actually be misleading to the analyst. This was at the same time I was studying validity and reliability of instruments in my psychometric classes in college.

Over the years and through a combination of experience layered over learning I’ve discovered some critical factors in designing research studies to get at the truth.

I learned a number of things which made me rethink how to structure and ask questions, and how to gain cooperation.

1. You can get people to answer virtually any question. However, that doesn’t mean you’ve asked the right question or attained real information you can use in your communications.

2. What you learn in a quantitative study may or may not be verified when actually talking to the respondent. What is intended in the question may not be how the respondee understands it. Further, one of the most frustrating things to deal with is replicating quantitative segments in the real world. It’s possible to create an algorithm that seems like it makes sense, but then when you try to find the people that match this “type” it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Not a very large marketing segment for profits.

3. People Rarely Tell You What They’re Really Thinking – on line, on the phone or especially when they first meet you and want to make the right impression – whatever that may be – I’m a nice guy who will make you feel great about what you show me vs. Hey, you can’t put anything over on me. I’m intelligently suspicious and distrustful. Compliant types may “yes, you” ad nauseum; while defiant ones will second guess you to death. More importantly, if you do not recognize and adjust your approach with this knowledge in mind, you won’t be able to predict the truth.

4. Might is more often Right. Not in the way you might think, however. When you ask for an answer to a hard question, particularly when asking “why,” you take the pressure off by asking what it might be rather than asking “why did you . . .” The truth is, most often, people don’t really know why. They can make up an answer but the real reason resides beneath the surface, beneath the social censor. When you “ask what might it be” you give permission to speculate and ultimately reveal more of the true self.

5. How a “no” can be a “yes.” Not sure if you realize this or not, but most people are starved to say no. We were forced to say yes as kids in our families and in school. Still happens at work and in our communities. So when given an opportunity to express our “No” it’s hard not to. When inviting people to do imagery based exercises that might make them a little uncomfortable, especially if I want them to close their eyes so they can get into their own creative process, I’ve learned that I get more cooperation if I invite a No that’s actually a yes. During a group I might say, “Does anyone have an objection to closing your eyes for this exercise?” With very rare exceptions, virtually everyone says, No and I get my Yes to cooperating. Think of all the ways you might use this in your personal life, with kids, significant others, people at work.

6. Trust is the Most Important Factor in Any Dialogue. But how do you establish Trust. Even though the interviewer/moderator has to avoid biasing the interview with their own opinions on the topic at hand, they can and should establish a warm rapport with an instant reveal. It could be as innocuous as a comment like, “Hi. [smile] Wow. These shoes are so tight. Do you mind if I take them off during our talk? Sorry, don’t mean to complain but. [take off shoe].” My experience is that these little human disclosures make you seem so much more human and trustworthy.  By doing so, you create instant rapport allowing the interviewee to quickly start to revealing him/herself.

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