E-Newsletter: The Man Who Knew Too Much (October 2006)

The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 2 Issue 10   October 2006


Halloween is upon us, but that’s not the scariest thing in town. No, even more frightening is the possibility of spending good money on research and not getting the information you want!

Read on for this month’s perspective on why hiring industry outsiders as researchers is often the best approach to gathering quality information, cost- effectively.

Please click here to send us your thoughts and comments.

Ghoulishly yours,

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

The Man Who Knew Too Much

As a market research firm, specializing in qualitative research, it’s our job to conduct lots and lots of interviews. While generally, we manage talented interviewers who conduct these interviews, we also do some ourselves; occasionally we outsource to third parties, and some we simply advise on. The truth is, at any given time, there’s a chance that somewhere in the world, someone is asking someone else a question on our behalf!

During the initial project planning phase with a client — and particularly if the study’s respondents will be senior management types — we are often asked the following question:

“Do the people doing the interviews have experience in the (blank) industry?”

The “blank” may be banking, high tech, pharmaceuticals, consumer packaged goods, or any one of a dozen other industries. Whatever it is, the question behind the question is whether our interviewees know enough to have an intelligent conversation with a high-ranking professional from the industry being surveyed.

Our response, often, is something to the effect of: “Probably less than you may think they need.”

From there, we go on to explain that in our experience, using interviewers who are industry outsiders can contribute to obtaining more accurate information, more efficiently and effectively. And while we (and, sometimes, members of our client team) certainly train our interviewers enough to be aware of key industry trends, to recognize acronyms, to understand industry terminology and to appreciate context, we often deliberately avoid the use of industry veterans.

Here’s why. . .

  1. Industry outsiders don’t bias the outcome. In general, humans listen, understand, follow up, and probe for more information, based on what they already know.

    If I’m extremely familiar with your industry and company before the interview begins, I’m much more likely to filter what I hear through my preexisting perspective.

    The industry outsider, on the other hand, is a “clean” recipient of information; soaking it up and taking it in as it comes out of the interviewee’s mouth. In this respect, the less I know, the more I hear.

  2. Industry outsiders are more cost-effective. Not because they’re paid less, but because they’re better at being efficient, i.e. staying on track.

    Although an interview may look like a conversation, if done correctly, it’s anything but. An interview is about gathering the information needed, as quickly and objectively as possible. Unlike a true conversation, it’s not predicated on — nor should it be — an equal give and take between peers.

    The problem with expert interviewers, however, is that they have a tendency to prolong the conversation in ways that don’t contribute to the objectives of the interview. They react, reinforce, disagree, show how much they know, and add their own experience-based point of view to the process. This side conversation lengthens the interview, which in turn, increases the cost of the project (or at the very least, increases inefficiency).

  3. Industry outsiders obtain more and better information. Great interviewers know how to listen.

    Rather than formulating their next comment while the interviewee is speaking, they listen to the responses and from those, pose strong, clarifying, probing questions that expand on the subject.

    Here too, lack of a strong opinion allows for more authentic and more effective (i.e. not loaded) questions. When an interviewer truly doesn’t know (and doesn’t think he knows) the answer to the question he’s asking, he’s more likely to wait for the answer and to ask for more if that answer is vague. Interestingly, this genuine probing further reinforces the experience of the respondent, who in turn gives better, more in-depth answers.

    The reason NPR’s Terry Gross (for example) can expertly interview politicians, scientists, musicians and others from every conceivable field and industry, is not because she has subject matter expertise in all of these areas. It’s because she knows how to listen and follow-up, and because her status as outsider fuels her curiosity, helping her ask better questions and get better information in the process.

In the end, being an effective interviewer is much more a function of interviewing skills than of subject matter expertise. Yes, interviewers must know enough of the basics to speak intelligently within the framework of a given industry. That said, the best interviewer is the one who has not yet formed a strong opinion.

— Julie

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Mixology (Putting research into practice)

The Beauty of Probing Questions

Key to effective interviewing is the ability to recognize when a comment is ambiguous, or a significant idea has been left unsaid, and to probe further until that comment is clarified or the idea is uncovered.

Clearly, there are some people who are naturally more skilled at this than others. Still, experienced interviewers become adept at using probing questions to draw out the thoughts that often lie just below the surface.

Two of our favorites include:

“What do you mean by…?”


“Tell me more about…”

Both of these questions share two things in common. First, they ask for more specific information. It’s hard to be vague when answering either one.

Second, they draw out information without injecting any more content into the conversation. In other words, they are the opposite of “leading questions.” Instead, they drill straight down, and don’t steer the discussion off in another direction.


The Man Who Knew Too Much

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

About Us

Interested in how CSR’s unique approach allows us to develop tailored presentations suited to the particular needs of different client audiences?

Click here to read a brief case study (350 words) from the newspaper industry, and to see a specific example of our methodology put into practice.

“The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before.”

— Thorstein Veblen

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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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