my radical suggestion for dealing with difficult respondents

The past couple of weeks have seen me tearing up and down the country moderating focus groups as part of an insight project I’m working on.

Writing a feedback note to the recruitment agency I use, it struck me that there’s nearly always one respondent in the group that you’d rather had stayed at home, even if it meant you were down on numbers.  These are the people who don’t behave badly enough to be actually asked to leave (which seems to be reserved for drunks, aggressive types and anyone catastrophically off-brief), but still make the moderator’s job a lot harder.

Deciding to actually tell a respondent that they need to quieten down / stop showing off / admit that they’ve been to at least three groups in the last month is a last resort as it almost inevitably affects the group dynamic and the flow of the session.  But there’s only so much you can do with body language, redirecting the conversation and ignoring the loudmouths.

I can’t lay all the blame at the door of the recruiting ladies, who often have rather challenging briefs to meet on short timescales and can’t be expected to put every single respondent through a personality assessment and lie detector test – although there’s no question that there are a few field recruiters out there who need to pull their socks up and stop sending the same groupies to every job they’re given.

But I think I’ve come up with an (admittedly fairly radical) suggestion to address the problem of The Respondents You Wish Had Never Turned Up.  It’s called Moderator Screening.

What if we paid every respondent an extra fiver and asked them to turn up a bit earlier, say twenty minutes before the group.  Then if viewing facilities put CCTV in their respondent waiting rooms the moderator could remotely watch the respondents interact and if necessary ask the viewing facility hostess to quietly pay off (i.e. give them the money but send them home) anyone who looked like a researcher’s nightmare.

It could work for hotel and in-home groups too.  Get everyone seated in the bar/kitchen and let the moderator sort drinks, coats and have-you-come-far-today questions.  A few minutes face to face might be enough time to pick out any disruptive influence and discretely encourage them to go home early.

I’d much rather moderate a group of seven happy, chatty respondents than eight where one is dominating the conversation and making everyone else clam up.  What do you think?

3 thoughts on “my radical suggestion for dealing with difficult respondents

  1. Great idea. Then one could possibly avoid having a disruptive person in the group.


  2. I agree with you – I’d definitely rather have 7 happy proactive respondents than 8 where one thinks they are the most important person in the world.

    It’s especially bad as well when it happens at a viewed group – because inevitably they will skew what the client believes the research is telling them. Trying to debrief when they’ve viewed the one person who was vehemently against the norm just makes them think you are lying :o(

    If you could get rid of those ones early it would be better all round.

  3. Telephone pre-checks can also help in pre-identifying potential troublemakers (though of course some difference and debate can enhance a group). Rewording the screeners can also catch out some “professional respondents” that lie in order to take part and get the money.

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