The importance of being an empathetic researcher 

Editor’s note: Isabelle Landreville is president and chief insight seeker at qualitative research firm Sylvestre & Co.

Building and keeping consumer trust is especially important as businesses overestimate consumer trust. Almost 90% of business leaders think consumers highly trust their businesses. But only 30% of consumers do. That’s a disconnect – one we also must overcome when talking to consumers during our qualitative research projects. 

That means we need to move beyond a transactional relationship: Here’s a cash incentive, please give me your answers. Thanks. Bye. It can feel efficient perhaps, but it’s not accomplishing the end goal of getting comprehensive consumer insights. And it might not feel like a caring environment to the participant. 

Now, I’m not making the case against cash incentives. I am making the case for creating a caring environment that helps research participants feel at ease and open to share their true feelings and thoughts. 

This is especially important in a world where many adults are worried about saying the wrong thing. But in a research project there are no right or wrong answers. There are true, untrue or less than complete answers. And that’s why it’s so important to build trust with participants. 

So, how do we do that as an industry? As a first step, researchers and brands need to be aware when they are not fully displaying that they care for the participant. 

It can happen by mistake. Everyone is busy – there are deliverables, timetables and so many other tasks to consider, so we need to understand the importance of caring. Being an empathetic researcher needs to be built in. 

How to build trust with marketing research participants 

To create that right environment for marketing research participants, it’s essential to create trust. 

As Frances Frei reminded us during this TEDTalk, the components of building trust are well established:

  • Authenticity.
  • Rigor in logic.
  • Empathy.

When the participants feel these from the researcher, trust is established. And likewise, when they are missing or the participants lax belief in their presence, trust will need to be reestablished.

Really, it all comes back to remembering that participants are people.

“One of the most basic things we can do to connect more authentically with participants is to talk like human beings talk,” said Karine Pepin of 2CV on LinkedIn. 

Building the rhythm and timing of the research

It does start in the planning process. Creating the right environment to show that you care includes considerations during the planning process, such as building in the right amount of time.

For example, there should be some time that allows for the right rhythm and timing of the research. That includes the number of questions that are asked during the session and the amount of time allowed for answers.

I’m a big fan of just allowing for silent time. When researchers don’t take their turn to speak it allows participants to think and reflect deeper on an issue, allowing you to get more useful answers.  

Creating a comfortable research environment

It really comes down to being hospitable. Be present, engage – genuinely – and be nice. At the end of the day, it’s essential to acknowledge participants right away and make sure they are comfortable. In essence, offer a warm, friendly welcome.

Creating an environment that enables a trusting relationship includes everything from the location, the setup and the atmosphere. 

When it comes to location ensure it’s:

  • Quiet and private.
  • Comfortable and inviting.
  • Not a place associated with power or authority – like a CEO’s office.
  • Fitting the participants preferences.

Be flexible and consider what’s best for the participants, because when they are comfortable, your research can be more successful. 

Building strong relationships with participants through communication and empathy

From there, a good outline to follow includes:

  • Introduce yourself and reiterate the purpose of the interview. Sharing or re-sharing the interview's purpose can put participants at ease and set the stage of what will be discussed and why.
  • Starting with a quirky joke has always worked well for me. In French we call it faire de l'humeur et non de l'humour. It's not comedy but it's about creating a mood and making sure everyone is in a good mood and stays there.
  • Respect and politeness go a long way in building trust.
  • Create a relaxed atmosphere. This can be easier said than done. There are questions to get through and answers to get to. Let’s go! But a manufactured rush to get through everything that must be covered is not the way to create that environment.
  • Be patient and understanding. Watch the totality of the communication. Do verbal and non-verbal cues match up? Sometimes, I’ve seen people say one thing, but their body language says another thing. When that happens a good follow-up question can do the trick.
  • At times, you might have to cut off a participant who is stealing the show and encourage others to speak up.
  • Use active listening skills and be aware of your own body language, just like you are of a participant’s body language. Responses can be influenced by the researcher’s body language as well. 
  • Be thankful. It should go unsaid but be sure to thank the participants at the conclusion of the interview.
  • Share next steps. A great way to show that you care is to let participants know what will happen next, how the research will be used and if they will get any updates. A feedback loop can also show participants that they are valued and that their opinions matter.

Why building trust with research participant leads to business results

Building trust with research participants because you care about them leads to better and more authentic and complete answers. When researchers care, people just open up. They share their opinions, experiences and problems in-depth and sometimes to a level they haven’t done before. 

Once we get that level of feedback, the insights gathered go beyond the superficial and give us insights that are actionable and can help brands deepen their relationships with consumers. 

This is not possible when we rush participants or don’t listen to their complete communication. To do that, we must earn their trust quickly and keep it so they open up to us about their consumer experience.

As an industry we can shrink the trust gap between company beliefs and consumer reality by caring and truly listening. In the long run, it will help all of us. Consumers will feel more engaged and valued and brands will thrive because they understand what their customers want, need and value. Plus, creating a good environment also ensures our success in the long run because people will keep wanting to participate. Without participants, companies can’t grow. 

Creating the right environment and caring about each other ensures everyone is evolving together, and the relationships deepen.