Without trust, research cannot thrive

By: Heidi Dietzsch

Trust is the cornerstone of every good relationship and this is especially true for successful market research. It is a two-pronged approach – not only do market researchers need to instil trust within their clients, but also within the respondents who participate in the research.

Stephen R Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, famously said: “Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships. When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant and effective.”[1]

Clients will never approach a market research firm if it is not considered to be trustworthy. To be seen as trustworthy, the firm needs a solid reputation. A well-reputed company, in any industry, enjoys a distinct competitive advantage and helps to ensure client loyalty.

One misstep can destroy a carefully crafted reputation very quickly.[2] Facebook users’ confidence in the company plunged by 66% after revelations that data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica inappropriately acquired data on tens of millions of Facebook users.[3]

In this new era of post-truth, alternative facts and fake news, the responsibility on researchers to build trust is greater than ever. This trust needs to be evident in the methodology used, the data collected and in the reports delivered to clients.[4]

The market research process consists of many different steps and each needs to be executed correctly, exactly according to client requirements. For instance, if a client requests that data be collected via an online survey, researchers cannot conduct telephonic interviews simply because they might deem this easier to do. If clients have certain criteria for respondents – say, women between the ages of 30 and 50 who use private banks – these need to be followed to the letter.

There is no place for dishonesty in the data collection process. For example, using fake respondents is taboo, as is allowing respondents to take part in the same survey twice. Researchers who make themselves guilty of such misconduct are doing themselves no favours and will invariably get caught out.

The good name of the market research industry is dependent on data of the highest quality and researchers always need to apply the ethics of data integrity. Data need to be thoroughly cleaned before it is used. For instance, if it appears that a respondent selected the first response of every question or gave the same rating in all questions that use rating scales, these answers should be deleted from a data set. It means that a respondent was disengaged.

In addition, data need to be presented objectively and cannot be manipulated to suit a certain narrative. Cherry picking, for example discarding negative responses, is probably the cardinal sin in the world of research. Researchers know that clients usually desire favourable results, but without negative responses, clients will not know how to improve their products and services.[5]

Reports are the end result of a study and should be the pride of every researcher. These reports should be visually appealing, logical and easy to interpret, while simultaneously telling an interesting story. They should be devoid of any data, spelling and grammar errors. Most importantly, reports should be delivered on time.

Excellence in all three of the above criteria – methodology, data accuracy and the quality of the report – combine to convey a sense of professionalism that helps to build the trust of clients.

Trust is just as important among respondents. Without implicit trust, people will most probably not participate in your research. Once trust is lost, researchers are unlikely to gain it back and respondents will not partake in future research.

There are many ways in which researchers can breach the trust of respondents. For example, if they guarantee anonymity and then reveal the respondents’ identities; if personal information is provided to third parties; if data are used for something other than initially stated; or if incentives are promised to respondents but they never receive it.

Complying with all commitments made to respondents — as well as creating an initial feeling of amicability — will gain respondents’ trust and ensure that they have a pleasant experience while participating in the research. It will also improve your chances of getting them to participate in future research.

There are different techniques that can be used to build trust for telephonic and online research.

With telephonic interviews, the interviewer should speak in a calm, friendly-sounding voice, making the interview sound like a conversation rather than an interrogation. Interviewers also should have the knack of gauging the mood of respondents. Are they busy? Are they engaged with what you’re saying? Should you rather offer to call them back at a later stage? These are questions interviewers needs to be asking themselves.[6]

Online surveys tend to create a sense of anonymity and respondents might thus be more willing to participate. Still, researchers need to be cautious not to raise suspicions by bombarding respondents with intrusive personal questions right at the beginning of the survey. Asking them what their home address is, for instance, is a big no-no and will certainly not inspire anyone to continue with the questionnaire.

It is always a good idea to send prospective respondents an email prior to the fieldwork. This should assure respondents that all their information, as well as their responses, will be kept strictly confidential. It should also outline the purpose and benefits of the study.[7] People are usually much more willing to participate in research if they realise that it will contribute to a positive outcome, or even to a good cause.

Market researchers have a moral obligation to treat clients and respondents respectfully and not to engage in deceitful or damaging practices. If these parties are treated unjustly the industry will deteriorate. The public also depends on market research for information on products and services and when this information is skewed, a disservice is done to the public. Market research is a vital business solution – but it has repercussions. It is therefore imperative that researchers instil trust in all stakeholders.