Great Researchers Ask Great Questions

I am borrowing this title from John Maxwell’s book Good Leaders Ask Great Questions.  At the end of the day, our effectiveness as researchers, marketers, and even in life rests on the questions we ask.

We have our strategies, methods, and approaches?  But how do we know what we are doing is right?  How do we know the ladder we’re climbing is not up against the wrong building?  It all comes down to asking the right questions.

It all comes down to asking the right questions.

You can download our True North Project Scoping Question Checklist.  But first let’s talk about the rationale for this checklist.

It does not take much time in the market research profession until we recognize that many times clients come to us asking for focus groups or some other method.  When after a quick conversation we typically realize they need something entirely different.  Order takers will put the ladder up against the wrong building.  Those who ask questions will get their clients what they need.

Asking questions builds trust and confidence

Asking questions does more than capture information, it also builds trust and confidence. It demonstrates to the client that we are listening, that we understand that his or her situation is unique, and that we want to understand.

Two great reads, The Trusted Advisor, and Flawless Consulting, both spend several pages discussing the importance of asking the right questions.  Yes, to build understanding but also to build trust and confidence.

Even if we think we know the answers to our questions, ask anyway!

The book, The Trusted Advisor uses the phrase “Earn the right to be right.”  To earn the right, we must demonstrate that we truly understand and that we care about the client and the outcome.  We do that by asking questions.

Now, combine that with what we learn from The Checklist Manifesto.  This book wonderfully illustrates the importance of having checklists; even for those things we know but might forget.

Putting all this together resulted in our True North Project Scoping Checklist.

I built this starting with a set of questions I have had on my bulletin board for years.  I then augmented that by reviewing the questions included in key consulting books, some good information from the Corporate Executive Board, and other sources. The result is our checklist.

This is more than just a random list of questions.

It also outlines a process of the questioning process that leads to a solid understanding on our part and confidence on the part of the client.  It also includes several do’s and don’ts.  Everyone on my team now has this laminated and nearby.

Given how much time we spent developing this, I thought I’d give it to others who might value it.

Click here to download the True North Project Scoping Checklist.

Or, if you would like a laminated version, feel free to email [email protected] and we’ll send you one.  Our treat.

Enjoy and I hope it makes all of us better researchers, marketers, and business people.


Who Are You?

As research professionals, we evaluate a brand’s position in the market. We help firms identify how and where to position themselves, how to differentiate themselves from others, and we measure their brand health.

Yet, how many research firms or research departments think about how to position themselves? How good are we at managing our own brands? Those of us in marketing and market research are supposed to be the experts in brand positioning, but how can we make this claim when we don’t do it ourselves?

I recently attended a market research CEO summit where I met many smart researchers from firms we all know. I quickly learned through my conversations that most still struggle with the same issues – “how do we get new clients,” “how do we talk about ourselves.” On the supplier side, it seems we all say the same thing and few of us truly differentiate ourselves.

This also applies to those in insight departments on the client side.

When I was running a client side team, I tried to be intentional with “positioning our brand”. This is not just a theoretical exercise. The brand to which you aspire should influence how you staff the department and what you deliver. If you want to be internal consultants (as was my team’s objective), hire those who enjoy the consultative nature of our business and being part of our internal client’s team. If you desire to be technical experts, you hire accordingly.

This same thinking also applies to marketing departments. Are you, or do you want to be, the business lead who understands what clients want? Or is yours the creative group of experts in communications and creating ads?

This notion of “brand positioning” also applies to us personally.

I still remember a friend giving me some very good advice in my early days of research while at Hallmark Cards. At the time, I loved getting into the data and the methods. I would stay late trying out different methods. I thought that would be my path to becoming a great researcher. My friend Julie asked me if I wanted to be the technical expert, or the internal consultant who works with clients to help identify solutions – I couldn’t be both.

In reality, perhaps we can be both — but not in our client’s mind. So, although I still explored methods, I talked about them less. Instead, I would discuss concepts that came straight from Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy or Tom Peters’ and Robert H. Waterman, Jr.’s In Search Of Excellence – two landmark strategy books at that time.

We must understand who we want to be. Are we consultants? Technical experts? Low cost? Innovative? Business experts? Data experts? Most of us would say “yes” to all. But of course, just as we all tell our clients that they must pick, we can’t be everything. So, what does your firm or department really want to be? Who do you really want to be?

The bottom line is we need to be intentional in defining who we are. Staff accordingly. Set team expectations accordingly. But also, communicate to your clients who you are — whether you are on supplier or client side — and live by it.

Just as we help our clients manage their customer touch points, we should be intentional with our touch points – even if you are an internal team. If you want to be an internal consultant, do your documents and presentations look like something a consultant would produce? Can you hold a conversation on business matters other than market research techniques?

Try this as a start . . .

This whole concept is hard. Really hard. My firm is about seven years old and we’re just figuring it out. In a recent meeting, a team member wrote down what we said about ourselves and created this video. I love it. I wish I were smart enough to put down in words who we are – but the good news is these are our team’s words. Not mine. But it reflects what I want our firm to become; who I want our team to become. There is more to do, but this moves us in the right direction.

Click here to view video.

Consider this exercise for your team. Have each team member identify a few words and phrases that describe who they would like your team to be. This can be revealing. This may capture the essence of your team. That’s the first step. The hard work is then figuring out how to become that to which you aspire. But at least you will now have a compass (and perhaps your own true north).

If You Were Boss

“If I were in charge of my organization, what would I do based on the information I have?”

That’s a question each of us as researchers should consistently ask ourselves.

All too often, we are content to give numbers and charts, and report what respondents said, when our management really wants to know what we recommend and how it will improve the business.

If we want to be heard and have an impact on our organizations, we need to develop a clear point of view (POV).  That means shifting in our own minds from researchers to management — acting as though we are the ones making the decisions rather than just providing data.

In addition to providing direction to the organization, it results in a much more on-target report.

Develop a POV

A clear POV is an important part of any recommendation. There may be times when we believe the recommendation is obvious based on the numbers we have.  But don’t make that assumption.  We work with numbers every day, and are comfortable with them and what they mean, but others in the organization may not be. Don’t assume others see what you see.  You need to give your POV based on the data? What do you think we should do, and why?

What would you do in their shoes?

At the end of the day, our objective should not be to report survey results but to provide direction for making decisions — again, shifting our mindset from research to management.

For instance, does management really care if we increased top 2-box scores for brand awareness? What does that really mean?  Does it translate into sales?  Does it tell us if the strategy is right?  What does it mean if our customer satisfaction score decreased?    Should the company invest in changes?   What does all this mean to the decision maker? Why should the CEO care?

The ability to think like management and provide more value means that our knowledge goes far beyond how to execute a market research study. Our research skills should be cost of entry. We need to also know something about marketing, strategy, pricing, messaging, and other areas of the business otherwise our recommendations become sophomoric.  If we don’t take the time to develop a holistic view of the business, we limit ourselves to the role of data collectors.

Each time we present results, the question to ask ourselves is “if I were in charge, what would I do based on the information I have?”  Whatever that answer is, present a case for it.  Design your report or presentation so that it takes your audience on a journey that ends with your recommendation.

So what would you do?

How To Push Your Idea Up The Ladder

Let’s say you have a great idea for your management.  You’ve identified something the company should really consider.  How do you move it up the ladder so that it gets implemented?

Do you send an email?  Perhaps include a link?  Do you stop someone in the lunchroom or after a meeting to share your thoughts?  Perhaps you have an opportunity to capture someone in the elevator for that elevator pitch.

For those of you who have tried any of these (probably most of us), how did they work for you?

Just think about how busy we are.  I don’t know any market insights or marketing departments that are overstaffed.  Everyone has their list of objectives for which they will be held accountable.  So if someone were to email you with a great idea, how likely would you be to jump on it, develop it, or make a case for it?

Consider from your management’s perspective. Since your leadership is likely getting several of these suggestions coming from all sides of the organization, how likely is it that your idea will get the attention it deserves?

There are a couple of things you can do to increase the chances of your ideas moving up the chain:

Make it easy for them

If you want to get some traction on an idea, develop it, research it, make a case for it. Create a concise, well-articulated document or presentation that your management can take on to their management.  Don’t just try to sell your management, create a document that sells their management.

This takes time — but your idea won’t go anywhere unless you make that investment.   Of course, you can’t do this with every idea, so pick and choose those few ideas that are worth the time required to make your case.  Just like a good ad, those ideas presented with a clear single message will be more effective.  If you can get just one of these ideas through management a year, you will be the hero.

Be smart about choosing the ideas to advance

  How do you determine which ideas to pursue?

 The book The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader by Bart and Barwise suggests the following criteria in deciding which ideas to push forward:

  1. Biggest win-win for customers and the company
  2. Realism – Pick an issue that appears solvable with a realistic effort
  3. Energy — Test your ideas with others to see which generates the most energy. This could make the difference.
  4. Time to success — Pick something where you can achieve measurable progress while you’re still around.

Dovetail your idea to fit management’s plans

Finally, don’t try to change management’s agenda.  You will likely fail if you try to move the company in a direction senior leader don’t want to go.  You will be most successful if you dovetail your ideas and recommendations to fit within the current agenda and goals of senior management.

Good luck!