The Key to Successful Executive Interviewing: Up Close & Personal

The researcher’s key to the executive suite is hanging in the spot where it has always been.  Our entry into the consumer and other B2B worlds may have strayed towards mobile and online methods – bulletin boards, surveys, communities, and social-media lurking – but successful research with the corporate executive still lies in the warm, personal connections we make in the face-to-face mode. We can try to defend other approaches as more efficient (in time and cost), innovative, and sexy, but the reality is that nothing reaps the richness of a person (the professional interviewer) sitting with another person (the executive interviewee) for the sole purpose of exploring topic-specific attitudes and behavior.

If success is measured by the depth of input and insight then there are at least six necessary components to the face-to-face executive interviewing design model:

  • Positive preliminary contact & scheduling

A successful executive interview begins with establishing a positive relationship with the interviewee prior to the interview, laying the foundation for the positive rapport necessary when the actual research interview is conducted.  With this in mind, cold-calling is never appropriate.  Not unlike The Ritz-Carlton – whose motto is “We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” – researchers’ professional approach to the executive interview will elicit a professional response.

  • Clearly-defined & achievable goals

Succinct goals for each interview that are highly specific (e.g., reactions to particular product/service ideas) will result in more productive and ultimately more actionable insight than a generalized goal (e.g., attitudes towards a broad concept for a line extension).  While true in most research, this is especially relevant when working with executives where we implicitly or explicitly promise to use their time wisely.

  • Flexibility & personalizing the interview

While conducting 75 or more executive interviews may feel like a quantitative exercise (and, in some ways, it is), the success of these interviews lies in the ability of the interviewer to adapt the interview for each business situation.

  • Distinguishing between useful & not useful input

There are many instances when the interviewee may unintentionally confuse the interviewer by steering the discussion away from its intended goal.  So, equally important to being flexible is the ability of the interviewer to distinguish useful (goal-specific) input from off-target commentary.

  • Listening – exploring what is said & not said

Listening skills involve more than just keeping quiet and letting the corporate executive talk.  It is more about “active listening.”  Carl Rogers said that, “To be effective, active listening must be firmly grounded in the basic attitudes of the user.” Through contemplative listening and watching as well as appropriate probing, the executive interviewer should be able to walk away from the interview with the ability to articulate a complete, nuanced understanding of the executive’s point of view.

  • Limited researcher involvement

The successful implementation of the first five parameters hinges greatly on limited researcher involvement.  Ideally, just one senior researcher should execute the initial contact, the scheduling and goal-setting as well as the interviews and analyses.

Face-to-face executive interviewing may not be fashionable or fast but it is an elegant research design that effectively minimizes error while maximizing ultimate insight.  It is now and forever the key to the executive suite.

* This is an excerpt from M. Roller’s article, “Meeting Executives Face-to-face.”

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