Ten Reasons You Should Hire a Professional Moderator to Conduct Focus Groups

Includes case study examples

I'm writing this commentary by popular demand.   A number of clients have called recently to ask whether I have an article regarding why they need a professionally-trained moderator to conduct their focus groups.   They explained that their management or internal clients are looking to economize, and are considering having a staff member moderate their interviews.

I think these questions reflect just how effective the trained facilitators that they are currently working with are — simply put, good moderators make it look easy.   However, it takes a true professional to appear unflappable, matter-of-fact and calm while strategically navigating a dynamic discussion with a group of strangers.

A moderator colleague once confided that he asks clients who want to facilitate their own focus groups, "Do you take out your own gall bladder too?"

Although his direct manner amused us, there are more serious reasons to use a professional, as outlined in our own list of Ten Reasons You Should Hire a Professional Moderator to Conduct Focus Groups:

  1. Working with an outside professional adds credibility to findings.   Respondents reacted enthusiastically to a new grocery product we tested recently and indicated they would pay one-third more than what they were currently paying for this type of product.   We captured this response in the report we prepared for the makers of this product.   Our client now has a report prepared by an independent, professional research firm to share with the grocery stores that they intend to approach with their new product.   Would the research findings have as much credibility if they had conducted their own focus groups?

  2. A professional is well trained and facilitates for a living.   Most professionals have experienced workshops, programs or degrees in facilitation-related areas.   They have developed skills through moderating hundreds or thousands of groups that they can now apply to your project.   Professional moderators are much more likely to know the latest techniques, interventions and methodology.   They can effectively relate to respondents ranging from CEO's to employees on the factory floor.

  3. Professionals are outside consultants who aren't afraid to question clients' assumptions.   For example, we tested a multi-million dollar advertising campaign that positioned a global travel organization as a wonderful employer, promoting a good work atmosphere and benefits.   While we were retained to test the appeal of the ads, we sensed discomfort among current employees.   Our probing revealed that while employees found the ads appealing, many felt the ad claims were untrue. Further investigation at corporate headquarters revealed that the employment conditions described in the advertising were not universal among all locations, and the campaign was scrapped.   Would the internal team that had developed and grown attached to this campaign have identified this issue if they conducted their own focus groups?

  4. Employee respondents trust outside consultants and will be more candid with them.   JRS Consulting has conducted interviews with more than 1,000 employees of Fortune 500 organizations experiencing reorganizations.   In initial meetings regarding these research initiatives, a few clients said they were considering moderating the focus groups themselves.   Each time, we asked our client's senior management, "How honest would you be in a focus group about this reorganization if it was conducted by someone from your company?"   Each time, the firm decided to retain JRS rather than conduct the groups internally.   On numerous occasions, employees have told us, "I'm impressed that management hired you.   It shows they really are interested in what we think."

  5. Professionals know how to manage group dynamics and won't allow a difficult respondent to distract the group.   Recently, clients told me how impressed they were when I soothed a bossy and unruly respondent through techniques I've learned over the years.   I helped channel his energy more productively and kept the group on task, before he could become a real problem.   "I could see you were running that group differently than the others and didn't know why at first," noted our client, "but I sure noticed how you calmed him down without his even realizing what you were doing."

  6. Pros create an atmosphere of psychological safety, enabling them to identify issues and explore below-the-surface feelings that go unnoticed by a novice.
  7. For example, when we tested messages among first- and second-graders for a youth organization, kids responded negatively to the idea that the club offered them a chance to do things they hadn't known they could do. "That sounds scary," a young boy explained, "I might get hurt." However, when we revised the message to convey that kids could try activities they didn't usually get to experience, focus group respondents responded positively, "Awesome!"   For seven- and eight-year-olds, the world can be a daunting place. Feeling competent -- and looking cool in front of peers -- can make all the difference when it comes to choosing which after-school organization to join. This subtle difference was an "awesome!" finding for our youth organization clients as they developed their marketing materials.

  8. A professional knows how to go beyond surface information to identify what's really important to customers and employees.   For example, we interviewed customers of a major retail chain who emphasized that "good service" was critical for repeat business.   We drilled down and identified the cues of good service in the eyes of consumers. "How do you know you're getting good service?" we asked. "And why is that important?" These questions helped us identify that making eye contact, smiling and asking if customers needed assistance to their cars suggested that employees care.   Feeling cared for led to an emotional connection for customers, making them more loyal to the store.   Identifying specific behaviors that generated these feeling allowed the store to develop employee training programs to encourage this connection.

  9. Professionals are more likely to "be the bad guy," standing up to the client and directly sharing bad news if they sense that the client is proceeding unwisely.
  10. For instance, a division director retained us because he wasn't getting the regular flow of information he needed from his staff.   While information flowed well at times, there were days when he failed to get the updates he needed.   Staff interviews revealed that their director's moods varied so greatly that they had instituted a "red light/green light" system outside of his office.   On days with a green light, they felt free to approach him.   But when the red light was out, they avoided him because of his angry outbursts.   Of course, no staff members wanted to tell their leader about the impact that his style had upon internal communications.   We shared this sensitive feedback directly and made recommendations for improvement, leading to a greatly improved information flow between this executive and his staff.

  11. Professionals are objective and specially trained to maintain that objectivity.   Their focus is on obtaining the information clients need for their business.   They aren't distracted by internal politics or concerns within the client organization.   They know how to avoid alerting research respondents about what is important to the client or what outcomes the client is seeking.

  12. Professional moderators and "real respondents" obtain valid information needed to improve business.   When I worked for a PR firm, I asked my management if we could conduct focus groups when we competed for a large account.   Initially, my manager responded, "Do we have to pay for real focus groups?   Can't we just meet with some of our own people and give them some free peanuts?"   I persuaded him that our mostly female staff members, many with advanced degrees, were quite different from the rural, uneducated young males we were trying to reach for this client.

The focus groups allowed our team to get a much more insightful look at the target audience. Our prospective client commented during our presentation that he was impressed that we had actually interviewed his users and gone beyond "a bunch of PR people sitting around a table brainstorming and eating peanuts." In fact, the groups generated the big idea that helped our agency win the business and ultimately led to a program that had tripled in size by the end of our first year!

Moderating focus groups may look easy, and an inexperienced moderator will obtain results.   But more often than not, those results will lack objectivity and their value will not match those obtained by a professional moderator.   Indeed, they may end up costing more in terms of misdirected programs than hiring an independent professional in the first place.

Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting, Inc., a firm that helps
organizations build leading brands and efficiently attract and retain
employees and customers. Subscribe to the free JRS newsletter on www.jrsconsulting.net.

© JRS Consulting, Inc. 2008