Do Your Homework Before You do Your Research

Developing a customer value model to maximize profitability
January 17, 2017

Factors such as perceptions of deadlines, cultural taboos and cultural biases have a major impact on international data collection efforts.

Editor’s note: Albert Fitzgerald is president of Visions Research, Del Mar, Calif.

New technologies, booming export markets, the proliferation of the Internet, and e-commerce have helped create a global economy. International research has become a necessity as more companies begin serving international and global markets. But while economic barriers may be disappearing, linguistic and cultural barriers still remain and are often stumbling blocks to successful international market research.

Savvy market researchers need to recognize and respect areas of cultural difference such as language, concepts of time, and local customs in order to conduct successful research on an international scale. While many research obstacles are obvious, subtle landmines can cripple the most carefully planned research once the international realm is entered. So fasten your seatbelts, put your tray tables up, stow your laptop under the seat in front of you – we are about to take off on a trip to foreign lands.


Perhaps the most obvious cultural obstacle to overcome is language. Language does not translate literally. Word-for-word translations can easily lose their intended meaning. Keep in mind that each country has its own idioms and that some American concepts simply do not have foreign equivalents.

To catch these translation errors, use back translation whenever possible to ensure that all questions and responses are properly interpreted and handled. This means translating your questionnaire into the local language and then having it translated back into English by a different translator. Compare your original version with the version that has been translated back into English.

Unless it is a very simple questionnaire, the two translations will typically have subtle but important differences. If that is the case, several iterations may be needed to get an accurate translation. In a recent study conducted for a Fortune 50 technology firm, a Russian translator wrestled with the term “thin client.” In computer jargon, a “thin client” is a PC that that is relatively low performance – such as one a receptionist may use. The back translation revealed that “thin client” had been translated into Russian as “skinnier customer.” I can just image the weird answers we would have gotten had we asked, “How many skinny customers do you currently have at your site?”

Don’t assume one language is an acceptable catchall for a national or regional dialect. A Spanish-speaking translator may understand dialects in Mexico, but not in South America or Spain. In India, it’s even more challenging when you consider that the country has 18 official languages and over 200 dialects!

For focus groups and one-on-one interviews, it is not enough for moderators and interviewers to be merely fluent in the local language. What is important is that they be able to converse in a culturally relevant way, catching subtle meanings and non-verbal cues. Moderators also tend to be more effective when respondents perceive them as not having an accent. Some respondents communicate differently to someone with an accent. Respondents may “dumb down” their language when communicating with a moderator whom they perceive as having a heavy accent for fear the moderator will not understand them. Ultimately, it is the researcher – and the research quality – that loses out.

Here is a tip that can save you a lot of confusion if you are observing focus groups in a foreign country: Be aware that non-verbal cues vary greatly from culture to culture and that identical non-verbal cues may mean something very different from what you think they mean. For example, a native of India will respond positively by shaking his head in a way that looks like a “no” to most Westerners. This can be very disorienting – even when you are aware of it!

As another example, in Western cultures, when someone talks and maintains steady eye contact, it is considered a good sign that the person is being honest with you. In fact, we even have a phrase that when you are speaking the truth you “look someone in the eye.” However, in some Asian cultures, if a younger person maintains eye contact with an older person when speaking or being spoken to, it is considered disrespectful.

So how do you conduct meaningful research that is not fraught with miscommunication without having to invest the time to thoroughly understand the culture? After all, you are probably interested in doing the research and getting back home as quickly as possible. Your purpose there is not to lead an anthropological expedition. Even if you spent hours cramming for your trip, you still would not have a clue regarding some of the more subtle aspects of communication in a foreign culture.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to handle this: Use a native-born local moderator whenever possible.I cannot stress this enough. It solves a myriad of problems and challenges because it ensures familiarity with the area’s market, customs, issues and events. It is the most important thing you can do to make your research design and implementation more effective. Using a local moderator allows respondents to feel more at ease and elicits more natural discussions from the group – another big advantage.

However, just having a local moderator may not always be the most effective solution. In China, having a co-moderator who is a foreigner can often get you better results (even if the foreign co-moderator is just “on display”). This is especially true when researching a prestigious imported product. But you must also be aware that if you are researching culturally-sensitive issues, the presence of a foreign moderator could be a disaster. It’s likely everybody will clam up or, even worse, you’ll get badly biased information. Check with your local moderator to see what approach works for your research.


Deadlines are viewed differently in different cultures. Be sure to allow for differences in ideas about time and punctuality that may affect your research schedule. For example, in South America, many field services do not feel pressured for time. On the other hand, in Japan and Germany, you’d better show up on time if you want the respect of your hosts. In these two countries, punctuality is very important. Being “fashionably late” is a major faux pas.

So what’s the lesson? Be flexible and prepare for scheduling changes that may come up. Remember that not all countries keep 9-to-5 business hours. Do your homework and time your calls and focus groups carefully.

Part of your homework for scheduling marketing research overseas should be to find out where national and religious holidays fall on the calendar. Chinese are unlikely to attend a focus group during the three days in late January or early February of the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year. For people in the United States, Mardi Gras is an issue. You will not find too many South Americans willing to participate in a focus group during their celebration of Carnival. The European holiday calendar is different from the U.S. calendar. Typically, Europeans celebrate more holidays than we do in the U.S. Europeans always seem to be on holiday! In our office, we often joke that if it is Tuesday, it must be a holiday in Europe! Many Europeans also take extensive vacations during certain months of the year. For all intents and purposes, it is difficult to conduct research in Europe during the month of August.

Cultural bias

When comparing measurements between various countries, differences in cultural expectations or requirements may result in a research bias. For example, to avoid offending someone, respondents may be more generous with their scores in a research situation than they would in a real-life situation. In some cultures there is more resistance to new products and services – this may lead to negatively-skewed results. The degree of bias differs among cultures, and you may want to probe in depth on the top and lowest scores to understand the true meaning of high or low ratings.

Western countries typically have facilities designed specifically for market research studies. In India, research is often held in places that offer the most comfort for the participants. This is good because it provides for more honest responses. However, it does lead to some unusual (to the Western mind) facilities for conducting research. For example, a focus group or interview among housewives may be held at a home matching the socioeconomic background of the participants. Conversely, a business-to-business focus group or interview among men may be held at a hotel or office.

Reactions to cultural incentives also differ. What is gold to some is an offense or even illegal to others. Cash, gifts and lotteries are viewed differently across countries. Cash seems to be the universal incentive, but other clever incentives abound. For example, in China, many young males enjoy receiving credits to play interactive games online called “massive multi-player online role-playing games” or “MMORPGs,” similar to Young females enjoy receiving discounts on products as well as cash. One caution about lotteries: unless you want to be conducting your next focus groups from the inside of a foreign jail, be very careful. “Innocent little giveaways” may be strictly regulated or illegal in some countries. Ask questions before offering drawings.


Attitudes toward age and gender vary in different cultures. In some countries it is disrespectful for young people to disagree with their elders, or for women to disagree with men. In these instances it is best to separate groups by age and/or gender. Dividing groups by social strata and status is appropriate in countries where class distinctions are more apparent.

In India, you must design your focus groups with as much homogeneity as possible. This approach provides comfort for the participants and gathers the most useful responses. With India’s stratified culture, differences in social status – as well as the associated levels of education, age or gender – can lead to discomfort in the group. It is always advisable to recruit only one respondent type per session. As a general rule of thumb, in many Asian cultures, younger and lower-ranked employees are reluctant to disagree with those they perceive as more senior. The only way to know all of the nuances of a specific culture this is to ask a local facility or moderator.

Some topics that are discussed candidly in the U.S. must be handled with more sensitivity in other countries. You may want to use a female moderator when conducting a group among women, or an older, more experienced moderator to interview older respondents.

Another caveat regarding government regulations and laws: Some countries have strict regulations about whether or how market research is to be conducted. For example, in China, foreign-commissioned research must be conducted by agencies approved by China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Depending on the subject of the survey, the National Bureau of Statistics must approve the questionnaire and additional documentation before the questionnaire can be administered. In Germany, there are strict anti-harassment and confidentiality laws that govern telephone interviewing.


Regional differences may also influence the type of methodology used. In the United States, it is common to conduct Web surveys for B2B research. In China, where Internet penetration is not as high, a Web survey may or may not be your best option. If a sample with a broad cross-section of the businesses is required, the telephone could be the way to go. Internet access among small businesses is limited, therefore it would be difficult to find a sufficient number of small businesses to complete a survey. Even for large businesses, Web surveys need to take into account differences in Chinese technology. The Chinese tend to use dial-up connections instead of broadband for Internet access. The smaller bandwidth means survey development needs to account for longer download times for the respondent. This means avoiding usage of large files such as pictures.

Keys to success

To conduct successful international market research, researchers must be fluent in foreign cultures as well as languages. The most valid research will come from those who are both well prepared and familiar with the markets they are entering.