Great Researchers Ask Great Questions

Great Researcher


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 receive The True North Project Scoping Checklist.

If you’d like a copy of the Checklist, simply click here to download a pdf. In return, I’ll ask you to receive our blogs in your inbox. We all bring different perspectives to research and the more of us participating in the conversation, the more effective we can be.

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

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


Have A Point Of View

After all, you're the expert

Businessman With Megaphone.


We all understand that senior management values decisiveness. So why are many of our documents or presentations filled with qualifiers – “perhaps,” “tend to,” “may be,” “90 percent level of confidence?”

The truth is, as a profession, we offer a great deal of expertise, but we also tend to offer a great deal of ambiguity, and we often lack decisiveness. Our managers are looking to make decisions and for us to be decisive in giving recommendations that help them make those decisions. So the question becomes, are we giving them what they need?

I’ve cited in previous blogs the statistic that 85 percent of senior managers want market research professionals to be a trusted partner and internal consultant, but only 25 percent think we are.  I also read recently that companies are increasing their research spend, but limiting the research head count expenditures. This all tells me management values the information but not necessarily the researchers themselves. The fact that we are all too willing to serve up our data with a side of caveats and ambiguity rather than decisiveness may be one of the reasons we fall short.

We’ve all witnessed that painful sight when a less experienced researcher gets his or her shot at presenting to a senior executive. The researcher, rightly proud of the work, wants to share all of the great information. But as he or she does this, the executive becomes more and more impatient, waiting for the bottom line. Waiting for the answer.  And when he asks the key question “what should I do?”  he gets hemming, hawing and caveats. The researcher has just wasted the opportunity to influence senior management.

We are comfortable in shades of gray – but management is not

Researchers understand that few things in life are black and white. We live in shades of gray. We want our clients to understand these shades of gray and nuances. But our clients are not us. There is a point where we need to rise above the shades of gray and form an opinion or point of view as to what it all means for the company.

We need to recognize what most business leaders understand – there is no such thing as perfect information, and that we often need to make decisions without having all the facts.

For those of you who have been fortunate to work with strong leaders, you understand they want your opinion. They want to know what you think they should do and why.  When we answer with “well we could do this, but on the other hand, that has merit as well, ” we limit our effectiveness and do a disservice to ourselves and our firms. Yes, there are shades of gray. But since you understand all these shades of gray and nuances, evaluate them and state of point of view. Really, who better to offer an opinion than you?

Developing a point of view is not easy – nor typically within our comfort zone

I offer a workshop to my clients on how to get results heard. In most all cases, this is perhaps the most difficult challenge the participants face. They may understand the concept and the rationale, but many are just plain uncomfortable taking a position and having a point of view.  There is a risk involved.  What happens if the CEO disagrees?  What happens if we’re wrong?

The key to successfully offering and owning your point of view is to ensure your opinion is  based on evidence. If you can support an opinion based on logic and strong evidence, then you are on solid ground and your point of view will be valued – even if others disagree. You will have contributed to the decision. Others will have other sources of information and other points of view and that’s okay.  Perhaps their arguments will win the day.  But you brought your insights to the table for discussion and as valuable input for the decision.

There are hidden benefits to having a point of view

A huge side benefit of having a point of view is that it forces us to analyze our results with a different perspective.  It makes us think like leaders — not just reporting data, but trying to decide ourselves what we would do. This might lead to slicing and dicing our data in different ways, or integrating data points from other sources into our documents to support our points.  But if we do these things, we will become more comfortable with our own point of view and we will have produced a much more decision-ready report or presentation.

Owning a point of view makes us much more prepared to answer that question “what would you do?” And in doing so, we will have taken a step closer to becoming senior management’s trusted advisor.

Share your insights at the right time and place

Get on the Planning Team's Agenda

timing is everything - reminder words on a vintage slate blackbo

Are you reporting your strategic results when the company is focused on execution?  An approach to getting heard is to sync your results with your company’s planning cycle.

Get on the planning agenda…where the senior leaders will hear you

There is a time when management is planning and there is a time when the organization is executing against those plans.  If you report results during the execution phase, your insights may be ignored and forgotten when planning time comes around.

Our best bet for being heard and influencing strategies is to get our data to those who can use it when they need it — during the planning phase – even if that data is from a study completed six months earlier. This allows us to influence those large corporate initiatives.

Steps for getting invited to the planning meeting

First, you have to have something to say.  Cull through your research and identify the top 5-7 customer insights of the year; the insights you believe management really needs to hear.  You want those few insights that really matter.  The more you try to communicate, the lower the likelihood your insights will be used.

Next, get on the planning agenda early in the process so you can share your top insights with senior leaders while they are interested in hearing them and might do something about them.   You have valuable information. What management group would not be interested in a brief overview of the most important insights of the year?  And who among them would say he or she doesn’t care what the customer thinks?  I have not seen this fail.

You may choose to work through your management, or better yet, simply get your bosses’ approval while you work to get your “Top 5” on the agenda.  I prefer the latter approach as I know my findings will be heard if I’m the one pushing for them.  Learn who is in charge of managing the planning process, then work with this person to get on the agenda.  He or she will likely have to run the idea past their management, but given your content, the odds of your inclusion and presenting to decision-makers will be very high.

Share insights, not data

Don’t structure your presentation like a typical research report.  Here are a few tips for this leadership audience:

  • In this setting, state your point-of-view with just enough data to support. And certainly not every data point you have.
  • Make sure the insights are pithy and to the point. Absolutely not “researchy.”
  • Bring in other, non-research supporting points if possible – it will add credibility to your points.
  • Avoid method discussions. If you are presenting to this level of the organization, they will trust you can execute properly. If they begin asking method questions, it is a sign they don’t like or agree with your insights.  Address the real issue; going into method details will not convince them.
  • Think through who and why someone might disagree with your points and address this in your presentation.
  • Be prepared to defend your point-of-view in the resulting discussion. It is this discussion where your knowledge and understanding can shine.

It works

We recently recommended this approach to a client.  He was added to the agenda last minute. We worked together over the weekend building his Top 10 Insights of The Year. He walked out of the presentation after his delivery to receive a high-five from his CMO.

This is exactly where our profession should be – providing the insights to those at the top of the company as they are formulating plans and strategies.

And it’s even more fun when we can get that high-five.

The CEO Is A Person Too

So how do we influence?

CEO pic

 The top of the organization makes the really big decisions.  And of course we want them to use our insights when makig these decisions.  Unfortunately, many times our reports are our only access to these decision makers.  This makes it more difficult but also very important for our reports and presentations to do their job — to get the reader to really understand so that they will take action.  Otherwise, they are useless.

This post continues the conversation on how to get clients to listen to our insights.  In this series I am using the 3 elements of influence first outlined by Aristotle.

As a reminder, these 3 elements are 1) Logos – the logical appeal, our data, our strength; 2) Pathos – the emotional appeal, story telling, effective presentations; and 3) Ethos – influence through credibility and character, the trust we engender with our clients.

Today I’ll focus on Pathos, the emotional appeal.

Why can’t the facts just speak for themselves?

This is the dimension that makes left-brained researchers squeamish.  We would love it if we could just let the facts speak for themselves.  Why do we need to think about influence and, worse yet, emotions?

The reason is simple – those who make the decisions are human.

The CEO is a person, too!

By now we have all heard that consumers decide based on emotion but justify their decisions rationally.  This has been a theory for many years.  But now with advancements in brain science, it has been proven.  As Gerald Zaltman puts it, “The conscious mind explains actions produced by unconscious processes.”

I was in my office one day talking about this with someone on our team.  That’s when it hit me…the CEO…he’s a person too.   For that matter, so is the CMO and all those on the Operating Committee who make the really big decisions.

So if all these decision makers are people, then their brains work just like the rest of ours – they decide based on emotion and justify rationally just like the rest of us.

Do you doubt it?  Have you ever heard the expression, “Nobody was ever fired for buying IBM?”  This is an emotional rationale for a really big B2B decision.  How about this one — I have seen first hand a highly rated ad campaign killed because the Chairman’s mother, a retired English teacher, did not like that the key phrase was not grammatical correct.  All of our data did not change the fate of that campaign as soon as the Chairman made that comment.

These decisions are not based on facts and logic but on emotion.

Companies have learning disabilities, too!

Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline identified several organizational learning disabilities.  Among them is the inability to escape existing mental models.  I love this quote from John Maynard Keynes:

“The difficulty lies, not in accepting new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” 

I have found that even when the data is clear, it is really hard to get the organization to change course — especially when we are talking about the big, strategic decisions.  And the longer a company has been on an existing course, the more difficult it is to effect change.

This, of course, is not the only organizational disability.  And Peter Senge did not even address resistance to change in power centers or the distorted behaviors caused by quarterly financial reporting.

Of course all the logic in the world will not overcome these learning disabilities — we need to go further.

One solution is learning how to build very effective presentations

Of course we need to do more than this, but a strong, effective presentation is a good first step.  We don’t have to dig too deep to realize that there are many, many reasons why simply reporting the numbers does not work.

If we want our information to be heard and acted upon, we have to understand how to best get our information heard and understood in light of these disabilities.  Fortunately, there are many resources that tell us about storytelling, how to present effectively, and how to persuade.

We will be talking about these in future posts.

As always, I’d love to hear your feedback, ideas, and solutions.