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Diary of a Moderator - Part I

Published in Quirk's Marketing Research Review, January 1997

By Mark L. Michelson

Mark Michelson is President/CEO of Michelson & Associates, Inc.., an Atlanta, Georgia based marketing research company that has provided mystery shopping services nationwide since 1984.

Part I: managing multiple priorities

Editor's note: Mark Michelson is president/CEO of Michelson & Associates, Inc., an Atlanta market research firm. He can be reached at or 516-576-1188. Part two of this article will appear in the January issue.

There is much more to moderating focus groups than what is seen through the mirror. Professional moderators must manage multiple priorities while dealing with numerous unexpected challenges. From preparing proposals through report presentation, a moderator must have the flexibility of a rubber band in order to ensure the quality in conducting qualitative research.

This diary is a composite of a typical week in my life as a moderator. It is my hope that this diary will help others involved with focus groups understand the many tasks, challenges and obstacles that a moderator faces on a daily basis. Any resemblance to actual facilities or situations is not coincidental. Names have been changed to protect the clueless.


4:00 a.m. Even though most of my focus groups are conducted in the evening, I'm definitely a morning person. No alarm clock needed. It’s my time — no phones, no meetings, no interruptions. To make up for my morning time, I try to take naps in the afternoon whenever possible. It’s a habit I've learned to love.

First things first — grind the beans and make the java. While that's brewing, time to check the E-mail. Click...wheeee...zzzzz...chkchk...ahh. Now downloading...72 messages. Here are a couple of interesting ones:

re: Do you conduct surveys online?

re: How much do you pay to be in Focus Groups?

re: Bid request for multi-market research project

re: Make millions with our bulk e-mail system!

re: Transcripts from MRT Services attached (these are from 4 sessions conducted last week)

re: For a good time visit

I take a few minutes to read and respond to each of these, except the "" one of course.

5:00 a.m. By now I'm on my second cup. Finished with E-mail and working on my calendar and list of things to do. This week I've got six sessions — four for a publisher; two in Boston on Tuesday another two in Dallas on Wednesday. The other two sessions are scheduled for Thursday in San Francisco for an automotive client. My plane to Boston leaves on Tuesday at 11:00 a.m. — flying directly to Dallas on Wednesday morning. I make a note to check for upgrades.

Before I go on this week's road trip, I need to finish reports for two clients and send three proposals for three prospective clients — still waiting on a few more facility rental and recruiting estimates from Chicago, St. Louis and New York City. I placed my bid requests last Wednesday to five facilities in each market — have heard back from only seven out of the 15. I make a note in my calendar to request bids from more facilities in those markets just in case I never hear from the others.

6:00 a.m. Time to finish the first of two reports. This project involved four sessions conducted two weeks ago for a retail store design firm. First I pull key quotes from the transcript, then organize the quotes into categories based on the objectives and topic outline. Some interesting stuff — I have to be careful in my conclusions because, typically, many of the comments contradict each other — even quotes from the same respondent. One of my many conclusions is that there are different facility preferences depending on the intent of the shopper’s visit. I spend an hour detailing the various shopping scenarios and their impact on store design.

Trying to add both color and substance to the report, I insert quotes from the sessions: "If I’m buying Preparation H, I don’t want everyone to see what I’m buying, so I’d prefer to have high counters in this area of the store." — Henry, Age 65. "If you’ve got stuff on the bottom of the counters, make sure the aisle has enough butt room so I can bend over to see what’s in stock." — Betty, Age 38 "I want to be able to get in and out really fast. I want to be able to see the whole store so I know where I’m going. I wish the counters were lower and the aisles were wider." — Jane, Age 23. After a few hours I finally finish the report for the retail design project.

10:00 a.m. At the office, finally. I send the report to my editor for review and advice. We need to print and send five copies today via courier. I’ll work on the other report later this evening or tomorrow on the plane.

I check voice mail — 12 new messages. Two are from facilities I hadn’t yet heard from in Chicago regarding my bid request. They say they want to talk with me about sample incidence for recruiting. I’m thinking "What is the incidence from a list of customers? Can’t they figure this out for themselves?"

Two more of the voice mail messages are from facilities wanting to sell me their services. One is in Chicago, the very same one I sent a bid to last week that I’ve been waiting to hear from. I return this person’s call and inquire about the status of my bid request. She says she only works part-time doing cold calls, but isn’t responsible for actually preparing bid requests. I ask her who is responsible and she says I’d have to call back and speak with Diane, the owner, who should be in the office in a few hours. I decide to let Diane call me.

One call is from the retail design client whose report I’ve been working on all morning. I call the client to let them know their report will be coming soon. They say they need it tomorrow morning for a meeting. I assure them it will be there today. Next I call back the facilities in Chicago regarding the "incidence" question. They say they’ll have the cost estimates to me shortly.

Time to prepare those three proposals. One is for a fruit distributor that wants consumer opinions/reactions to branding concepts, another is for a hospital that wants to conduct sessions with expecting parents and the third is business-to-business for an HVAC distributor. I’ve already consulted with each client regarding their objectives, budgets and time requirements (it seems everyone always wants their reports yesterday). Even though I’ve only heard from nine of the 15 facilities, I have enough info to prepare everything except the final cost estimate.

For the fruit distributor two, sessions each in Atlanta and New York City. (Hmmm...maybe I can schedule the NYC sessions concurrent with the upcoming QRCA conference.) Standard recruit: 12 for eight to show, primary grocery shopper, mix of demographics, not participated in any focus group in past year (seems like I am getting more professional participants in sessions these days). Also, there are some specific requirements for these consumers: must eat cantaloupe at least two to three times per week, willing to pay more for best quality produce.

For the hospital, I’ll be conducting three sessions in St. Louis, the specs are specific — one session with new parents who used the hospital’s maternity unit, one with expecting parents at least 3 months pregnant (equal mix between those who have chosen both my client’s hospital and competitive hospitals), one with couples planning for children, undecided on hospitals. For the HVAC distributor, we’ll be doing the groups during a convention in Chicago with customers and prospects from lists supplied by the client. Better remind the client I need those lists soon.

3:00 p.m. My editor has finished reviewing the retail design report. She suggests rewording the summary conclusions in a more colorful manner. I ask her which color would be suitable. She gives me "the look" and some examples. We print the report, which goes to copying/binding and shipping. Whew! One down, one to go.

5:00 p.m. My staff evacuates. Still waiting to hear from eight facilities. I call the facilities in Boston, Dallas and San Francisco to check on the status of recruiting for this week’s sessions. They assure me everything is ready to go. I ask them to fax me a list for each session. I’m ready for a nap.


4:00 a.m. Grind. Click...wheeee...zzzzz...chkchk...ahh. Now downloading...67 messages.

re: Earn $$$$$ online!!!!!

re: I want to be in your focus group

re: Graduate student seeking info for term paper

re: Transcripts from MRT Services attached (these are the last two of four sessions conducted last week)

re: New small business needs research assistance

Let's look at my things to do today: Finish second report. Pack bags. Call 12 clients. Catch plane at 11:00 a.m. A busy day to say the least.

When I arrive at the office at 8:00 a.m. my voice mail message light is blinking like a strobe. Fifteen messages. My in-box has four more faxed estimates from facilities. Finally, the facilities are responding. Still haven't heard from two facilities, including Diane in Chicago. Now that I have most of the field expense estimates, I can finalize the cost estimates on those three proposals and fax them to the clients.

Better get going, my flight leaves in an hour. I can usually make it from my office to the gate in an hour— with five minutes to spare. As I crank up my Jeep, I listen for traffic reports. I-75 is a parking lot, better take I-285.

Oops, forgot to upgrade my flight. Better call now —it's a long flight to Boston. Thank goodness for cellular phones. "Thank you for calling Delayed Airlines. Press 1 for flight schedules, 2 for lost luggage, 3 for international reservations, 4 if you are a platinum member, 5 if you are flying first-class, 6 if the moon is full, all others please hold for Helen Waite." Finally, I get someone who tells me the flight to Boston is more packed than a sardine tin, but they can upgrade my flight to Dallas tomorrow. You win some, you lose some.

Zipping along at 70 m.p.h., I finally get to the airport parking lot, which is full. Don't panic, I tell myself, there is an off-site parking place nearby. After securing the last spot in that lot, I wait for what seems like forever for a van to take me to the terminal.

I have four bags, two I check at the curb, two I carry. Finally, through security, carrying my computer and hanging bag down to the transportation mall, up to
Concourse A, run to Gate 34 at the end. I'm beginning to perspire — heart palpitating. There I see a sign: flight delayed until 12:00. Ahhhhh ...should've known that Delayed Airlines would be late. Time to catch my breath and return more calls.

Boarding planes is always a pain. Everyone is in a hurry to get on. I finally make my way to the plane, to a center seat between an overweight man and a 12-year-old boy with Nintendo. I had planned to continue working on my report. The 12-year-old keeps asking me questions. I oblige and let him see some of the games on my computer. So much for catching up on my work. I decide instead to catch up on some sleep. Impossible.

After nearly three hours of interrogation by the 12-year-old, we're finally pulling into the gate. Everyone is even more anxious to get off than they were in boarding. Of course, before the seat belt light goes off, the aisles are already jammed.

Finally, getting off the plane I make my way to the pay phones first (16 voice mail messages), then to the rental car counter. The not-so-attentive employee at the rental car counter informs me that I have to go outside and wait for the van.

More waiting. Finally, I get a rental car, a small red compact. When I turn the key, the stereo blasts out some unintelligible rap noise. Luckily, I know where the hotel is. I'm ready for a light nap after the long, sleepless flight. I set my alarm for 4:00 p.m. Later, in what seems like only seconds, the alarm goes off. I clean myself up and head to the facility, which, thankfully, is only a few miles from the hotel.

As I enter the facility, carrying bags of books, a computer and a check to cover the incentives, rental and recruiting, I'm confronted by a receptionist who insists on seeing my ID. I give her my business card, inform her that I am the moderator and ask to see Jane, the facility director. She says she needs a photo ID. She takes my driver’s license and disappears without saying a word. I am forced to wait in the lobby for over 15 minutes until she finally reappears and says curtly "You’ll have to wait until Jane is off the phone." By now it’s nearing 5:30 -- several participants have arrived and are quietly eating some kind of disgusting looking mini-sandwiches and stale chips.

I’ve not met my client in person, though I feel as I already know her from our numerous conference calls, voice and E-mail messages. A professional looking woman comes into the facility and tells the receptionist she’s looking for Mark Michelson -- this must be my client. As I go up to introduce myself, the receptionist interrupts me and demands photo ID from my client. I try to convince the receptionist that this is my client. The receptionist gives me an icy stare and says "Everyone who comes in here must show their photo ID." My client complies. My client says she needs to call her office. The receptionist says there’s a pay phone in the lobby on the first floor. Incredible.

While my client is downstairs using the pay phone, Jane finally appears at 5:45. She talks with the receptionist and then goes back to her office. I ask the receptionist if that was the Jane I needed to see before getting into the room. The receptionist says "uh huh" and nothing else. By now I am steaming. I’ve got to set up the room. I remind the receptionist that my session is supposed to begin in 15 minutes. She picks up the phone and from the back office comes Jessica, my hostess.

Jessica seems very friendly and apologizes for the confusion. I tell her my client will be coming back in any moment and to please keep an eye out for her, as I need to begin preparing for the session. Jessica escorts me to the discussion room and promises to bring my client back to the viewing room immediately.

The room is a wreck. There are only six chairs. Some cups and leftover food are still on the table. I realize the only way this will be cleaned is if I do it myself. I pull four more chairs from the client viewing area which do not match the other chairs.

It’s 6:10. I’m used to waiting a little while for respondents to show for the first session, to allow for traffic and all. But I haven’t seen Jessica or my client. Bravely, I go to the receptionist and ask to see the sign-in sheet for my session. She says I should go back to my room and wait for Jessica to bring it in. Finally, Jessica brings my client down the hallway. I apologize to her for the facility, she says she’s seen it before (unfortunately, so have I) and hopes the one in Dallas is better. I ask Jessica to bring in the participants. Within a few minutes, Jessica returns to tell me that only five of the 12 have arrived. It’s now 6:15 and I’ve got a full two hours worth of topics to cover. I decide to go ahead with the five and allow any more who show within the next 10 minutes.

Deep breath -- relax. It’s showtime. I greet each participant at the door and tell them to make themselves comfortable. As I begin my introduction, two more participants enter the room. "Come on in, we’re just beginning."

"My name’s Mark. Thanks for coming tonight. Has anyone here ever been in a focus group?" All seven people say they have been in focus groups at this facility many times -- several say they were here last week. Looks like I’ve got a group of professional participants. "Well I guess you all know why we’re here." To break the ice, and get everyone laughing I ask everyone if they have experience as a shepherd, while explaining the topic is sheep cloning. They all say "Sure. Whatever you say." I get the sinking feeling they would rather simply be paid and sent home.

To be continued...

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