Adding a little personality could help your career

  Bj Kirschner      12 February 2020     Team Insight, Real World Thinking

Whether you are new to market research or a lifer, you will notice two topics that dominate trade articles, online discussions and conferences: technology and communication.

Adding a little personality could help your career

How will the first affect our business and how will the second deal with those changes?

Beats the heck out of me. If I knew what technologies were going to appear on the distant horizon, I would be long-retired, the winner of multiple lotteries. If I could link generations together by exposing common communication habits, I would be too busy accepting my Nobel Prize to chair your International Olympic Committee.

In danger of getting crushed between the 21st century’s Scylla and Charybdis is an element extremely and specifically important to health care market research: personality. Health care market research, and really health care in general, starts with the vague “Is that person in need of help?” and ends with the triumphant “Here is how that person can be helped!” In between and alongside clinical research come years of science, tests, questions and answers, approvals and setbacks. All of that takes a lot of people, and though robo-calls, dials, surveys and eye-tracking can be helpful too, there is no substitute for the person who first asks the questions or the person who at last delivers the answer. What we are losing are the bonds not only between us on the research side but also those with the respondents and their handlers. The personal touch and unique thinking are getting lost to things like repetition, speed and volume to such a degree that training and retraining are based on sets of rules rather than areas of concentration, rote rather than wrote.

Health care market research itself may not save lives, but the information that comes from it, if used and understood correctly, certainly can help. My clients at pharmaceutical companies certainly think so. The research companies I work with feel the same, as do the suppliers who dig and find the supporting data. Most of all, our beloved respondents remind us of it on a daily basis.

How do we train and retrain ourselves to have personality? Isn’t it genetic? Partially, but like anything, it can be honed and polished. To prove it, and because we in health care market research love to overcomplicate situations, I will pick five personality traits most of the world considers negative and show why they can be helpful in saving our individuality and are worth consideration in the larger scope of how we all do business.

The Know-It-All

Ugh, the know-it-all. She’s the one who always has an answer and makes sure you know it. Don’t you hate being in a brainstorming session with her when she starts rattling off findings from similar studies she has done over the past 15 years?

Wait…how many years?

Forget the delivery, focus on the fact that she can remember studies she did 15 year ago (your CEO was in college 15 years ago). Do you know how many studies that counts? Hundreds! With thousands of respondents! She is your company’s Wikipedia page. She knows health care market research so well and is so valuable that she’s been in her position for 15 years. That’s the amazing part. Seek her out, pick her brain, use her knowledge. That’s what it’s there for. The more you engage her, the less she will have to address the troops in long meetings. The sheer knowledge in this industry should stun you. We can talk about facial fillers and foot ulcers at the same time. Everyone should lean on that knowledge, whether you are a biotech company or caregiver with questions. A know-it-all is the link between the questions and answers, so new employees should spend a day with her and seasoned employees should not fear her replies.

Keep in mind that for most of health care market research’s existence, the know-it-all was a respondent whose name had “Dr.” in front of it. Only physicians could give us info. Well, at least until we learned that nurses could help. Oh, and payers. Wait, patients too! And don’t forget all of us on the inside. Now the expert is anybody with the right knowledge to fit the research needs.

We should all make it a goal to be a know-it-all. The harm is not that the brainstorming bore shares too much, but that we ask her too little.

The Naysayer

Even in health care market research, it is okay to say no. Sure, sure, we all know we can say no, but I wonder if 10 of us actually did so in the past week. To my friends at research agencies, when your client asked you to run a mobile app study with 100 patients suffering from a very rare neurological condition in the U.S., Brazil, Japan and Finland, you did say no to Finland, didn’t you? And it was a qualified no, something along the lines of: “There are only 70 known cases of this condition in Finland and since the patients have very little manual dexterity, both the quota and the methodology are not possible there but let me see what will work,” right? Of course it was. And what was the response? “You are always so gloomy. Nevermind, I’ll find someone else who wants my business without any pushback.” And then how many hours later did you get an e-mail asking if it was too late for you to consult with your folks in Finland?

“No” is a healthy response. It’s honest. Not everything is possible. I would not recommend just saying no without any qualification but no is okay. “No” affects lives. Anyone ever worked with cystic fibrosis (CF) patients? You know a day in a central location could be a death trap for patients given the type of hygiene required to deal with multiple patients in the same space. You have told a client who is new to the CF landscape that his scenario is not possible but have also presented options that will end in the same results. You said no as proof of your deep experience, you helped someone learn something and the research was a success without harm to anyone.

Okay, it may not look great on a bumper sticker, but “Just say no, because…” is worth remembering.

The Prankster

A sense of humor may not seem like a negative trait we embody but only because it shows up so rarely. Because our side of the industry often deals with terrible debilitating conditions, no moderator walks into a focus group room and howls, “Who wants to talk wet AMD-e-e-e-,” like the one a few doors down showing off a new line of glow-in-the-dark running shoes. Ask your CPG colleagues; I bet they tell you they are afraid of how serious we are, which is why a dose of humor is often an unexpected shock.

This is the personality trait I most embody and I feel it’s an asset. I have a wry sense of humor, I’m good with a quip and I’m still here after 27 years. Not every situation calls for a quip but we often seem so fearsome and angry that I cannot resist regrounding us.

I had a client once who could not get an affiliate to approve the translation of a discussion guide for so long that we were ready to yank the study, to waste all that money and hard work because one person in the process was gumming up the works. At a moment of intense frustration involving three different companies on a conference call, I remarked, “He’s not approving the German translation, the patients don’t speak English, so why don’t we use sock puppets?” The end-client was on the line! Did my mouth just buy me a whole bunch of trouble again?

First thing the next day, an e-mail from my client arrives. I start packing up my desk and drafting an “I’m going to miss you guys” letter as I read the missive from this man who considers a smile to be the eighth deadly sin: “Though we still do not have approval on the translated guide, consider this the green light to start recruiting. The German affiliate has asked that all socks used during the interviews have no logos on them to avoid accidental bias. Please make sure I receive updates by 4pm daily.”

Of course, now I take full credit for a jest changing the direction of the project but really all it did was break the tension and remind everybody involved that there was a larger picture here (and saw my client show a hint of humor). Life-and-death topics do not require life-and-death daily outlooks. I have not been forgotten by that client.

No, you cannot borrow the sock puppets. Make your own; it’s fun for the whole family.

The Modernist

I’m not talking about Millennials thinking in 150-word bursts, as the modernist isn’t necessarily a technocrat. The modernist is that guy who always has input when you have a problem, usually without being asked. He’s really good in HR exercises because bosses always love hearing something quirky, even if it’s complete hogwash, because at least someone is paying attention.

I wish more people working in health care market research had the opportunity to spend time in a phone room. I started in one. Couldn’t wait to get out of it but those rooms are cauldrons of idea generation. In these rooms are people tasked with the hardest job in our entire industry: finding and convincing people to participate. The sit-downs among recruiters and supervisors to make that convincing faster and easier can be mind-numbing, especially when a modernist is the only one speaking. But even if a modernist is 99% hot air, his other 1% can be golden. It’s the modernist recruiters who have come up with things like going online to find patient support groups, using the male side of a data base for a female-only recruit because a lot of guys are married to a lot of women who aren’t in the database and paying an office manager to give patients a flyer during a visit to the doctor.

All of these ideas were considered batty when they were first proposed. Think of the extra time it will take! The extra money! The end client will never allow it!

Now they are the first lines of attack in a difficult recruit. They have replaced many other first lines of attack and hopefully someday they too will be replaced because some modernist thought of something years ago the rest of us are just now beginning to understand.

It’s called “market research,” so shouldn’t “research” be welcome anywhere in the process?

The Realist

Those of us in this industry more than five minutes have heard, “You’re only as good as your last project,” a realist rallying cry that makes realists less popular than high school math teachers and puppy kickers. But, they are the most vital to what we do. There is at least one on the pharma team picking countries, another at the research agency designing the study and a few at the field agency and recruiting operations. Oh, and every single respondent is a realist.

That’s right. Every single respondent is a realist. They are all capable of terminating on a screener as proof that either they do not fit or that the screener is flawed. They are all capable of canceling appointments due to personal illness or just being busy. They are all capable of dousing the fire of inspiration by disliking a concept or picking the ad you least expected to use. We need honest feedback from respondents or else everything we do is pointless.

So if the most important people in the health care market research chain are giving it to us straight, shouldn’t we be doing the same at every step of the process? Realism itself is not negative; it’s simply being able to assess a situation from a 360-degree vantage point. The realist is the person who came up with the fair market value incentive calculation as well as the field manager who can explain why it’s not enough. The realist is the moderator who wants to make the last evening flight out in order to be in fighting form the next day as well as the project manager who says that evening times are the most popular in the specific city being used. None of these people are right and none are wrong but you cannot convince them of that until a solution presents itself.

Convincing a person to change his or her mind is tough and those who can do it are brimming with personality that should be encouraged rather than squelched. Am I suggesting we all should be negative and depressing? Of course not. My point is we all have traits that make us unique – traits that cannot be seen on recruiting updates or Excel files full of data. Why not play to your strengths so that you are more than a recruiting update or a file full of data to your colleagues and clients?

I could have done this article with five peppy personality points but my personality rarely allows me to opt for the straightforward and that is exactly my point. I’m a know-it-all naysayer prankster realist with a splash of modernist who my clients and partners seek out for feasibility checks, for facts and figures and for experience, despite knowing they are going to get novel-length ponderous answers with bullet points of pros and cons and at least one joke to keep them awake.

Turn them into strengths

Here is the challenge I set for you, or hopefully you set for yourself: Look at how you work on a daily basis, at the habits or lines of thought you use that may not be obvious to those around you, to your clients – even to respondents – and make them obvious. Turn them into strengths associated with your name that will keep you top-of-mind as an integral force in an industry with high standards and high risks.

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