The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 2 Issue 4   April 2006


Effective interviewing is, of course, a critical element in many market research projects.

In today’s edition of “Research With A Twist,” we offer some suggestions to ensure that your interviews yield maximum value.

As always, your thoughts and comments are appreciated.

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

CSI: Market Research

I have a confession to make; I’m a big fan of TV police shows. Law and Order, CSI, and, my personal fave, the late lamented Homicide… I really do enjoy them all.

One of my favorite parts of any police show is the obligatory interrogation scene: A stark conference room, a nervous suspect, a couple of detectives, and what I can only assume is terribly bad coffee being poured from a carafe that looks as if it has been sitting there since Columbo walked a beat.

I think that what I find so intriguing about these scenes is that despite the particular details and objectives behind a given interrogation, the basic structure never changes: One person who may or may not have useful information and another person (or persons) looking for the truth.

When you think about it, this is exactly what’s going on when conducting market research. Granted, we come in contact with fewer felons, but the basic equation in the search for the truth remains the same.

All kidding aside, as I watch these programs week after week, I’m often struck by the fact that many of the fundamental principles necessary to conduct effective police interrogations apply equally well when conducting market research.

And so with that in mind, I’d like to share CSR’s three tips for conducting an effective interrogation, I mean research interview:

  • Listen actively and follow-up. There’s a character on Law and Order, Criminal Intent, Det. Robert Goren, played by Vincent D’Onofrio. Among his many interesting qualities is an uncanny ability to listen to what someone has said, and to use that information to frame the next question. Nothing gets by him and he simply does not accept one-word answers. He probes and confirms and probes again, always digging deeper for the truth, if not the underlying intent behind a given answer.

    Effective market research requires that same kind of active listening and follow-up. And while “yes/no” answers or “rate the following on a scale of 1 to 5” questions may get you through a survey quickly, you may not be learning all there is to know. Particularly when interviewing busy corporate executives, you’ve also got to probe and confirm and probe again. Not because these folks have an interest in misleading you (as a criminal does), but simply because until you engage them, you’re not getting the benefit of a well thought out answer. As one of our clients on the Bank of America research team likes to say, we look for “the why behind the why.”

  • Get detailed examples. Part of being a good police interrogator is learning how to separate fact from fiction. Most suspects are willing to talk (at least on television); the challenge is figuring out whether or not the talk is true. My detective friends on TV often ask suspects to provide details regarding where they were, who they were with and what they were doing. It’s one thing to say, “I went to the movies.” It’s another entirely to say, “I went to the 7:20 showing of ‘King Kong’ at the Regency with ‘Joey The Hatchet.'”

    By the same token, a skilled researcher knows the importance of eliciting detailed examples as a means of removing ambiguity. If, for example, a liquor store owner says she likes a particular distributor because it “provides great merchandizing support,” what exactly does that mean? Coming into the store frequently to maintain displays? Providing giveaways, such as key chains and the like, in connection with special promotions? Making sure he or she gets enough product when there’s a nationally advertised special on a particular brand?

    By asking for details (e.g. “Can you give me an example of the kinds of things they do?”), you will learn what lies beneath the general statement of “great merchandizing support.” As a result, you will have the information necessary to take real world action.

  • Control the environment. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the suspect interrogations on a given police show always happen in the same way and in the same place. They don’t do some in the coffee room, some standing in the lobby and some over lunch at a nice restaurant. The environment is well thought out and controlled, to make the suspect as likely as possible to speak truthfully.

    Your research should also pay close attention to environment, with the goal of completing the maximum number of quality interviews. We do this by setting clear appointment times, confirming interviews the day before, letting interviewees know how much time we’ll need, and providing an overview of the topic (not the actual questions) beforehand. Many times, with particularly high value executives, we’ll deliberately conduct face-to-face interviews offsite, so that interviewees are not distracted by being in their own office. In other words, we control the environment.

Just as there is a technique to conducting an effective police interrogation, there are a set of skills and procedures underlying any well constructed research project. By paying more attention to these three elements as you plan your research, you’ll often be much more happy with the results.

Until then, as Sgt Phil Esterhaus used to say on Hill Street Blues “Let’s be careful out there.”

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Mixology (Putting research into practice)

One of the challenges in conducting web- or paper-based surveys is that the interviewee typically works alone. In other words, there is no interviewer reading the questions out loud and recording the answers. As a result, the person completing the survey may get tired or distracted and simply start checking boxes at random.

Of course, there are many ways to combat this kind of “survey fatigue” up front. Choosing appropriate interviewees, crafting easily understood questions and keeping surveys short are just a few tactics for keeping survey-takers engaged from start to finish.

One additional technique that we recently came across (but ourselves have not yet used) is the use of a “check question.” This refers to a question inserted about two-thirds of the way into the question flow — the place when people often begin to get tired — which is answerable by anyone, but which confirms that the survey-taker is still engaged.

In the diagram below for example, you can see that question #45 includes a check question in row five by asking, “Please check column two — “Very” — to continue this survey.” Any completed surveys that do not have “Very” as the answer to this question are presumably discarded.

The assumption with a check question of this type is that anyone who got this question wrong was no longer (if ever) paying close attention, and there is a good chance that they didn’t read many of the other (legitimate) questions. Removing them entirely increases the validity of the overall survey.


CSI: Market Research

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

About Us

CSR Executive Vice President Mark Palmerino’s ongoing contributions to Winchester Hospital (Massachusetts) will be formally recognized at a ceremony on May 3rd, when Mark is presented with the 2006 “Friends of Research Award.”

This prestigious accolade is given to those who “contribute significantly to the design and conduct of research on behalf of Winchester Hospital.”

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

— Bertrand Russell

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About Us
The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data.


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