Research on the Orient Express:
Inside Secrets of a Market Researcher

Many people are not aware that being a good researcher also means being a good detective. Beyond the statistics and the regression analysis and the research reports, there's real life out there with fascinating problems and opportunities. In fact, as we like to say at JRS Consulting, our work often involves more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel.

While it's obviously critical to have strong analytical skills and techniques to conduct research, seasoned researchers have also developed intuition — what we call "Research Secrets" -- that have taken most of us years to learn in the field. We will share three of them here through three case studies.

A major retail chain experiencing a significant downturn in sales retained us to conduct focus groups with consumers and employees. While all involved agreed drastic action was required, there was a lack of alignment on where to begin. The list of possibilities was extensive, including such elements as the merchandise quality, the store appearance, service or prices. Our assignment was to uncover the greatest problem in the eyes of the consumer and identify specifically what needed to be done to restore the business. "We want specific action steps — not a research report that sits on a shelf," noted our client.

Our research clearly identified that service was the greatest opportunity, but we didn't stop there. We used our interviews to drill down and identify the cues of good service to target consumers. "How do you know you're getting good service?" we asked. "And why is that important?"

Research Secret Number One: Drill down to get at what's behind the generic answer you hear first. For example, ask, "What does good service look like?" and "How do you know you're getting good value?" By identifying the specifics, you can then develop a specific action plan to help your client or organization address those needs.

We used the focus group findings to develop a list of specific behaviors that employees needed to exhibit to customers, i.e. looking customers in the eye, smiling, greeting frequent shoppers by name and Hispanic employees welcoming Hispanic customers in Spanish.

We also interviewed store employees to learn what they needed from their employer to deliver this improved service level. One concept that was particularly powerful in supporting this direction was empowering employees to do whatever they needed to do to focus on customers. For example, we recommended that managers be given a supply of tokens they could award employees delivering strong service. Employees, in turn, were authorized to distribute gift certificates to customers experiencing delays or in need of extra attention.

Fast forward one year: This business has experienced a dramatic rebound, with double digit sales increases.

While conducting an employee communications survey for a Fortune 500 client, our contact expressed dismay over his employees' 18 percent response rate. "Why are our response rates always so low?" he lamented. While this client had conducted several communications surveys over the years, this was a first assignment for JRS Consulting and so we immediately set about asking brilliant, probing research queries to try and address his concern.

"What do you typically do once you get the survey results?"

"Well, we usually don't like the results so we lock the report up in a file cabinet and don't refer to it again until we do the next survey," he explained. "And it seems like every year, our response rate just gets lower."

Research Secret Number Two: To maximize response to an employee survey, put away your calculator and start communicating! A low employee survey response rate isn't usually a function of the research approach. A low response rate is more indicative of how motivated employees feel to complete the survey, which is often directly related to whether they believe anything will result from the survey findings.

For this client — and others wanting to increase their employee survey response rates — we conducted a strong communications program informing staff about survey findings. We developed a handout under the president's signature that announced what was working well as well as opportunities for improvement. The handout also identified what would be done to address shortcomings identified in the survey and asked employees to send an email if they had additional ideas for better processes. Supervisors received a targeted communication encouraging them to discuss results with their staffs. Communications vehicles were revised as suggested by survey findings, with the refurbished vehicles communicating that, "We heard you in the employee survey and here's what we've done."

Fast forward to the most recent time we conducted this survey: We sent out the employee survey questionnaire, accompanied by a cover note from a senior company executive who emphasized the importance of getting employee input and identified several key initiatives that resulted from the last survey. This time, 27% of employees responded to the survey — a robust 50% increase (nine percentage points).


Clients often ask us this question. And the answer depends on what's typical for your organization as well as your company's current internal climate (i.e. reorganizations, sales results, ratio of office workers to field employees), providing that you are ultimately obtaining a representative sample for data analysis. To obtain a representative sample in an employee survey, we want to get responses from 5-10 percent of employees (and at least 100 people) for the organization overall and for any subsets (such as business units) that we want to analyze separately. That means you want to send out enough questionnaires to obtain this sample size.

When conducting employee surveys, we have experienced response rates ranging from 18 percent to 63 percent. In every case, we have successfully worked with clients to increase the response, using communications approaches such as those reviewed earlier.

An organization looking to create a communications function for a regional office hired JRS to conduct a communications audit and defined success as having the function up and running by the end of our assignment. Our deliverables therefore included a communications plan, a job description, interviewing potential candidates and the hiring of a communications manager — but no research report. The point here is to ensure that your outcome meets your needs, rather than conforms to a standard approach. That means a typical research report isn't always necessary. In fact, it can be cumbersome.

Fast forward to the email we just received from the regional president: "The communicator is doing a great job working the communications plan." Enough said!

Research Secret Number Three: When embarking upon a research assignment, start by defining your measures of success and then work backwards to determine your approach. Measures of success are defined as improved business results (i.e. increased engagement, better utilization of resources) rather than typical stated objectives (i.e. conduct a survey of employees).

Here's our suggestion for beginning the process of establishing measures in any situation: When embarking upon a project, ask your boss or your client or whoever is ultimately engaging your services, "How will we know we've been successful?" Note the emphasis on "we."

In order to design effective measurement criteria, it's critical that everyone involved in the initiative — whether actually executing the work or signing the check that pays for it — has a clear idea of what success looks like. The implementer may have a very different idea of victory than the person ultimately responsible for the initiative. It's important to achieve consensus before getting underway.

While research can seem complex, it doesn't have to be. At the end of the day, effective research should help you make better decisions and identify stronger solutions. As good researchers and detectives know, sometimes the answer is right in front of you and sometimes you have to dig around a little to find it. In either case, it's important to know how to look for it. We hope the suggestions that we have shared in this article help you achieve your goals.


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

© JRS Consulting, Inc. 2007