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The Toughest Interview

January 25, 2006 - by Robert E. Stevens, GENESIS II(The Second Beginning) E-Mail:

Have you ever stopped to think about what was the toughest interview you ever had to conduct, write, or analyze? In market research we are constantly writing and conducting interviews and later analyzing the data. When I have asked people this question, they will usually cite a specific market research test. Some, however, will talk about an employment interview. The latter is very much in the minority but I believe right on.

Fortunately we do not have to suffer through too many in our life time. Unfortunately, there is one type of interview that we go through weekly and sometimes daily, that is the interview with the client. In any test, your client interview is probably the most important interview you will conduct for the test. I don't mean the interview associated with the client selecting you to do the research. I'm talking about the discussions involving the test protocol to be used, identifying the problem to be addressed, the questions to be asked, the location of the study, the timing of the study, the number of completed interviews necessary to answer the question and last but probably the most difficult, the cost of the study.

Just the thought of these interviews brings back memories, some not very good memories. My most frustrating debates usually involved cost. You design the study taking into consideration what is necessary to pass the reliability and validity standards. You point out that it will cost about $XX per completed interview. The first thing out of the client's mouth is "That is too much." Can we cut back the base? Can you find an agency that does not cost so much? Can we do it on the internet? Everything is directed towards the execution. Don't question if we really need the four page interview complete with 30 attribute ratings and 15 demographic questions when all we are trying to do is determine if the perfume level in the product can be lowered by 10%.

You discuss the proper testing environment and population sample only to hear, "I don't care about the environment or the sample, just get me some numbers." When I hear this, I know I am in trouble. If the results, no matter how collected, came out as the client had hoped, we are OK. However, if the results are different than what was wanted, I'm in trouble. Everything I had said that was necessary to do for the validity of the study was ignored. It would now be my fault if the study was a failure. My only suggestion is to document your planning sessions and actions.

As a point of interest, in the early days of my career, a director was working with me, one-on-one, to design a very important study. At this time, I was the new kid on the block. The final design of the study was the result of a knock down fight. I ended up saying "You are the boss; we will do it your way." Well the study was a disaster. I took the heat. In a review meeting, where we discussed how we ended up with the specific design, I related the events leading up to the final design. The response from the client, thanks to his honesty, agreed. However, he stated that it was still my responsibility. I did not argue strongly enough to persuade him to change his mind. A lesson learned the hard way, forget about it and move on, you can't win. As a result of this experience, we became good friends. Maybe in the long run it was worth the hassle.

Do I have a solution for these kinds of problems? No, I only have compassion for the market researcher. It is not really the job, but the fact is that we are dealing with human nature under fire. I've heard it said that "Life is like an elevator. It has a lot of ups and downs and someone is always pushing your buttons. Sometimes you get the shaft, but what is really bothersome are the jerks."

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