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Ask fewer questions, then really listen

I went on a training course this week. Nothing to do with work. It was in my capacity as a Governor of my local school. One of the tasks was the classic role-play. One person presented a problem, another coached them through it, and the third person observed.

What struck me most from the exercise was the power of a small number of simple, open questions. “What are your options?” “What’s your ideal outcome?” “How do you think others felt about this?” Answers to these revealed so much more about the problem and potential solutions than any seemingly more intelligent (and often verbose) questions.

Anyone who has studied, practiced or been the recipient of coaching knows how powerful these sorts of simple questions can be.

As a market researcher, I live for questions. I ask them, listen to the answers and then analyse what I hear. But to me, it seems the market research industry asks A LOT of questions. Perhaps too many. If we’re being honest, how many of these questions truly get to the bottom on an issue? How many are just padding? How many truly help the person answering give their full and honest view?

As a customer, I’ve filled in numerous satisfaction surveys. They ask me to rate a minor experience of a company on a multitude of different measures. It might be a quick phone call to organise roaming on my phone, or just buying a coffee. Sometimes the surveys take longer than the original interaction they’re measuring. And I’ve found all too often I reach the end of a survey feeling that I haven’t been able to really get my point across. Has that company really listened to what I think? I doubt it. Have they pushed me through a pre-determined set of metrics? Quite possibly.

Sometimes the surveys take longer than the original interaction they’re measuring

It might sound like I’m arguing for more qualitative research. But I think qual also needs to ask fewer questions. I recently read an online discussion about the ideal length of a focus group. Most industry professionals were arguing for either 90 minutes or two hours. I found myself thinking, “That’s a long time! What about 60 or even 30 minutes?” If ideas can’t be discussed in a short space of time, they’re probably too complicated to begin with. They probably won’t stand up or stand out in the market.

If ideas can’t be discussed in a short space of time, they’re probably too complicated to begin with

Thinking like a coach could be hugely beneficial to the research industry. Ask fewer questions. Make them simple. And then really listen to what people say.

You’ll learn so much more than you will from any over-engineered survey or focus group. You won’t waste people’s time, or your time. And you’ll have a much better understanding of your audience as a result.

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