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Diary of a Moderator - Part II

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 II: On the road again

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 I appeared in the December 1997 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.

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 in their work. Any resemblance to actual facilities or situations is not coincidental. However, names have been changed to protect the clueless.

At the end of part I, I was just beginning a session on publishing in Boston with a group of "professional" participants (consumers —but the kind who seem to participate in sessions for a living) in a frightful facility. The week improves — I promise. (Note: Boston is not a bad place to conduct focus groups — over the past 14 years I've experienced many excellent facilities, professionals, participants and meals in Beantown).


7:45 p.m. Finished the first of two sessions. It seemed like pulling teeth, but I was finally able to get the participants to express themselves coherently. We even gained a few new ideas on the topic. My client, Judi, who is still waiting on her dinner, seems satisfied with the session. As we grope through some stale pretzels and chips, we discuss some additional topics to explore with the second group.

I seek out Jessica, our hostess, to inquire about dinner for my client. She apologizes and says it was ordered and should be delivered soon. I have to remind her the discussion room needs cleaning to prepare for our next group.

8:10 p.m. Three of the 12 participants have arrived. I go out to the lobby to look them over. They appear intelligent yet bored as they thumb through last year's People magazines. A fourth arrives while I'm in the lobby. The receptionist, who demands to see ID from the participant, looks over her list and says curtly "You're not on my list." The participant politely mentions that she recently married and her maiden name is still on her driver's license. The receptionist growls something about having to check with her manager for approval. At this point I’d be willing to take anyone — at least I could make something out of a quad (fancy name for a group of four).

While the receptionist is checking with the manager (who I've yet to actually meet), two more participants arrive. Whew! Now I've got six. I go back to the viewing room to tell my client the news. Though somewhat disappointed, she says she's ready to begin with the six.

8:20 p.m. The receptionist has finally finished checking everyone's ID and Jessica informs me that we now have seven. I ask her to bring them in. "Thanks for coming tonight. I appreciate your patience." I feel as though I have to apologize to these participants for the facility's faults. "Before we begin, I want to let you know that I am an independent moderator from Atlanta. I'm telling you this because I may slip up and say ‘y’all’ — it means ‘you guys’." This brings some laughs from the group and everyone seems to relax a little.

10:00 p.m. The session has ended and I visit with Judi for a few minutes before leaving for the hotel. I turn on the light in the viewing room and ask what she thought of the sessions. She says the discussions were informative and confirmed most of her thoughts while providing a few new ideas as well. She and I are both wiped out after traveling all day and putting up with this facility.

After packing the books used in the sessions, we head to the lobby to pick up the audio/video tapes and screeners. The receptionist is now gone (thank goodness). Jessica is the only one left in the place. About 15 minutes later she brings out the tapes and screeners. I ask if she has a bag to put the tapes in — she says the owner hasn't ordered any new bags and offers a box. I stash the tapes in my already over-packed notebook case.

11:00 p.m. Finally make it back to the hotel room. My flight for Dallas leaves at 7:00 a.m. (I prefer to travel early when on road trips so I can check into the hotel early and take a nap to recharge and get adjusted to the time change.) My client will be leaving on a later flight. I call my wife to tell her about the awful facility and phone-kiss her good night. I have a hard time falling asleep - I'm feeling somewhat anxious over the sessions tonight. Actually, I feel OK about the discussions, but I'm disturbed at the lack of professionalism demonstrated by the facility.


2:00 a.m. I am startled by a loud noise coming from the room next door — sounds like a fraternity party. In vain I cover my head with a pillow — they counteract by turning up the MTV. As a last resort I call the front desk. Knowing they should handle it, I try to fall back to sleep. Thirty minutes later, boom boom, rap rap. Still no security. I call the front desk again — they promise security has been dispatched. Finally at around 3:00 a.m. the noise subsides.

4:30 a.m. Like it or not, I am awake. No coffee in the room and room service doesn't offer any service until 6:00. Slowly I unpack my laptop and plug in to check E-mail. Click…wheeee…zzzzz…chkchk…ahh. Now downloading…49 messages.

re: Focus Groups (someone wants to know how to be in a focus group).

re: Hi! (from a multi-level marketing spammer extolling the virtues of an amazing new belly-button lint removal system).

re: Request for proposal (a multinational company needs assistance with qualitative research on three continents within the next 30 days...this gets my interest.)

re: When in Chicago (from a focus group facility selling their services — the name sounds familiar — it's from the one that didn't

respond to my RFP last week).

After responding to the E-mail it's time to check my list of things to do today: Flight leaves at 7:00 a.m. Arrives Dallas at 10:00 a.m. I need to call a few clients and finish a report sometime today. Maybe I can arrange a visit with a client in Dallas while I'm there.

5:30 a.m. Better get ready to go. The hotel shower seems willing to only drip today — and the little water that does come out is ice cold. I call the front desk — after 16 rings someone informs me that the water is not working today and maintenance should have it fixed by 7:00. I tell them my flight leaves at 7:00. They apologize, but offer no solutions. I resign to a sponge bath with a frozen washcloth.

After checking out I head to the airport. The traffic is not moving and my plane leaves in less than an hour. At times like this I wonder if it is worth the hassle. I maneuver past a stalled truck and into the tunnel — return the car to the rental company with 20 minutes to flight time. I sit in the rental van for what seems like an eternity, until finally I'm let off at the Delayed Airlines terminal. I rush into the airport to security. They want to check my laptop — thank goodness the batteries are charged. Finally, running to the gate I see a hundred or so people standing in line.

An announcement in thick Bostonian accent comes across: "Flight 457 to Dallas is delayed due to heavy fahhg. All passengers please remaain the gate area until further notice." A collective groan resonates from the crowd. I make my way to the "no-service" counter and ask how long the flight will be delayed. The representative, without looking at me, barks, "How should I know? Do I look like Mother Nature?"

Time to work on that report. I prepare the introduction including the objectives and methodology, then outline the summary according to objectives. Next I begin pulling key quotes from the transcripts. Some interesting comments from these sessions. Just as I begin reviewing the second transcript an announcement is made that the plane is now boarding. Only 90 minutes late — not too bad considering the fahhg in Baastan.

Rushing to save my report, I put the computer to sleep and re-pack the laptop. They’re now up to seating row 12 out of 196. Luckily I have been confirmed in first class (one of the few perks I get from traveling all the time).

After waiting for another 10 minutes to board, I finally find my seat…occupied. I tell the other passenger that he is in my seat and show him my ticket. He produces a ticket with the same seat. Finally a flight attendant comes to my rescue, or so I thought. "Sir, since you boarded late, we gave your seat away."

I protested, "But I checked in at the gate and I have my ticket right here!"

"Sorry sir, please take any seat you can find in coach — we’re ready to leave once you are seated." The only seat available is between the lavatory and the engine in the middle of a five-seat row. Great.

I decide to plow into the report and ignore these upsetting twists of fate. I guess I should expect this now from Delayed Airlines (Motto: Delaying Everyone, Lying To All). At least I was able to complete the report during the flight — now I just need to modem it back to my editor for final review and printing — I’ll do this once I check in at the hotel.

Once we arrive in Dallas everyone rushes to get out of the plane as though we were in a crowded NYC subway car. I decide to wait it out until everyone has left. Besides, I’m in row 195 in the middle of five seats.

Once I get off the plane I call in to check my voice mail — 15 messages. I listen to most and return a few urgent calls. Then I find my way to the rental car shuttle — which in Dallas is a bus that serves many different rental car companies. After waiting for 10 minutes in the "Preferred Customer Line," I am given the keys to a maroon sardine can. At least it starts up on the first try, and the AC works.

Time to find the hotel and check in. Once there I can relax and get some work done. I’ve stayed at this hotel before so I’m fairly comfortable because I know what to expect. The employees at the front desk are helpful and efficient and before long I’m in my room unpacking my bags and setting up my computer. Time to return those other calls. Nothing too urgent. One of the calls is from the facility in Dallas — everyone’s confirmed and set to go. I log on to the server at the office and upload the report — my editor says she’ll handle it from there.

Ahhh. I can relax. By now it’s almost 1:30. Too tired to visit my client, I’m ready for a nap. Alarm is set for 4:00. Buzzzzzzzz. Time to get going. Since the shower in Boston wasn’t working, I spend some extra time relaxing in this one.

By 4:45 I’m ready to go to the facility, which is located within a few miles. Even though I’ve been to this facility several times before, this time it appears somewhat shop-worn with a distinctively early ’80s decor. I try to reserve judgment about the quality having gone downhill as well, but sometimes it’s hard not to judge a book by its cover.

When I enter the facility reception area, the hostess stands, greets me cheerfully and asks if I am Mark. I tell her I am. She introduces herself as Melissa and says "I’ve talked with you on the phone several times. It’s nice to meet you finally. Michelle, our manager, is looking forward to seeing you. I’ll show you to your room. Let me get David to help you carry your bag."

(David appears from out of nowhere and takes the heavy bag with the books I’ll be reviewing in the session.)

"Help yourself to the drinks in the refrigerator. If you need to use the phone, just dial 9 to get an outside line. I’ll be right back with Michelle."

I want to hire this young lady — she’s an angel.

"Hi Mark, I’m so glad to see you again!" Michelle says as she bounces into the viewing room. "We’ve really enjoyed working with you on this project and want you to know if there’s anything you need, anything at all, feel free to ask Melissa, David (who offers a handshake) or me. We had fun recruiting this project for you. With the screener you provided we were able to find qualified people fairly easily. There were several people who said they were really looking forward to coming because they’ve never been in a focus group."

Compared to last night in Boston, I feel like I’m in moderator heaven. I inform Melissa that my clients should be arriving any minute. Melissa responds, "We will bring them back immediately and make sure they’re comfortable. We have a fresh fruit and cheese dish they can snack on before their dinner comes."

While waiting for my clients, I call in to check my voice mail once again — 12 messages. The facility in San Francisco wants to confirm the number of clients attending and lets me know that we have full recruits for both sessions. I call the San Francisco facility, give them the info and thank them for calling. They ask where I’ll be staying in San Francisco so they can contact me directly should anything change.

Judi and her gang enter the room. "This place seems much better than last night. Look, they’ve even got fresh flowers on the table and fruit and cheese! Good choice Mark!" I tell them this facility really seems to care about their customers — and unfortunately not all facilities are as concerned with customer service. It’s hard to tell, even from the brochures and phone calls, unless you’ve been there. Fortunately I’ve been here before, and even though the facility is looking a little tired, the service seems to get better with every visit.

While my clients and I are talking in the viewing room, I notice David setting up the discussion room. He arranges all the chairs neatly, cleans the table and puts away all miscellaneous materials. Next he brings ice, drinks and a plate of cookies into the discussion room for the participants. David then knocks on the viewing room door and asks if I’ll be needing anything else in the discussion room. I tell him I will need an easel and a small table to display the books. He says he knows the perfect thing — and rushes off to set up the display and easel.

5:50 p.m. Without asking, Melissa brings a list of the participants who have arrived. So far eight of the 12 have signed in. She mentions that one of the participants looks like they have a cold and we should consider sending them home. I tell her I trust her judgment.

By 6:00 all 12 participants have arrived. I prefer to have smaller groups with no more than 10. Actually, eight is preferred. Melissa offers suggestions on a few of the participants we should send home. My clients and I agree with her suggestions and I let her know I’m ready to begin.

In the discussion room before the participants arrive, I fix myself a soda then stand by the door to greet everyone. "Good evening! I appreciate your coming tonight."

The rest of the evening goes remarkably well. Everyone participates openly and evenly. Near-complete shows for both sessions and many first-timers. My clients and I feel we learned much more from these participants than from those in Boston. The mood and setting of the facility made it more relaxing and natural for everyone. The management and staff at this facility understands the definition of facilitate — to make things easy.

After the last session, as my clients and I review the discussions, David asks if he should repackage the books we used in the session. Melissa then appears with our tapes and screeners along with a goodie bag containing fruits, cookies and treats for the road. Simple gestures like these go a long way with me. We thank Melissa and David for their hospitality as we are leaving.

That evening back at the hotel, I rest well knowing that my client is satisfied. I feel good about my profession - knowing that professionals like Melissa, David and Michelle can make a difference in the quality of qualitative research.

Tomorrow my flight for San Francisco leaves at 8:00 a.m. Another client, a different topic and one of my favorite cities. My wife will be meeting me on Friday for the weekend. I expect everything will go smoothly with tomorrow’s travel and sessions. However, once you’re on the road doing focus groups, I know a lot can happen that’s beyond your control. Preparation and experience will determine how you play the cards you’re dealt.

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