The following is an excerpt from the book, A Whole New Strategy.


The Mall Intercept

The behavior of many leaders and managers in companies makes me wonder just how comfortable they are with people (instead of tools and reports). Often, when managers and leaders are asked to take part in customer journeys or customer research, they begoff, citing too much importance or not enough time. Even in school, one of the most difficult tasks my colleagues in business programs assign is for their business students to go out into the world and meet actual customers. They seem genuinely afraid to meet people and instead, believe it’s their place as future MBAs for others to perform market research, which will be collated and summarized for them at some point so that they can create appropriate marketing plans. They use the Internet to search for relevant secondary research but do everything they can to ignore the need to be involved in primary research, themselves.

This behavior is seen in business schools and in the business world as well as in all types of organizations and industries. Only the most clued-in businesspeople know that they need first hand contact with customers if they hope to understand any opportunities the market has to offer. They also know that market research data, which is primarily numerical, doesn’t tell the whole story of opportunity sometimes, and experiencing it first hand can impart a better understanding.

For example, take the case of the once popular market research tool, the mall intercept. Now, the reasoning behind a mall intercept makes a lot of sense, but as we’ll see, its usefulness can leave a lot to be desired. Thankfully, it’s largely obsolete now for the reasons you’ll read here. But consider: how could it ever have been deemed valuable, and by whom?

A mall intercept is a simple idea: go to where people are already predisposed to buy things (such as a mall), when they’re in an optimal state of mind to make and share decisions about products and services, and ask them what you want to know about their preferences. A mall intercept is often a prelude or alternative to a focus group, where customers are brought into a room (an artificial situation) to comment on potential products and services. This isn’t a bad premise, by the way. People do have different thoughts, reactions, and opinions and share different information when they’re in the process of evaluating or buying something than when they’re doing something else in their lives.

What typically happens in a mall intercept is that a marketing manager hires another company to perform the research and assigns no one from her company (let alone herself) to attend the research or watch any of it in action. To save costs, she hires the firm with the least expensive proposal since this research is so “plain and simple” to perform really, how difficult can it be to stop people and ask a few, set questions? The market research firm, also trying to cut its costs, hires people at minimum wage since this work isn’t viewed in any way as skilled labor anyone can do it. And, to keep these interviewers productive, they’ll usually pay by the completed survey, not by the hour. This way, they reward productivity and not laziness.

What is rarely considered is how this appears to mall shoppers or how it feels to the interviewers. The entire research project is viewed as an inexpensive, easy way of getting valuable shopper insight. But, almost nobody likes stopping people and interrupting their activities to ask questions since almost nobody wants to be stopped (for the same reason). The busier we are, the more we resent intrusions into our lives. Thus there’s a built-in conflict of interest in the technique, no matter how easy it is to perform.

You can probably already tell what’s going to occur. We have people being paid little but motivated to fill-out as many surveys as possible, as fast as possible. These interviewers aren’t looking forward to interrupting strangers to talk and they know that most of these strangers aren’t going to be happy about being interrupted. They’re given survey sheets that are purposefully standardized, short, and direct because the researchers know that shoppers aren’t going to take much time out of their shopping to answer questions. So, the survey questions are pointed, direct, easy to answer, and somewhat obvious (since the low-skilled, low-paid interviewers aren’t in any position to ask anything in-depth nor follow-up on any interesting comments). Consider what you would do in this situation (as interviewer, interviewee, or even as marketing executive). How would you respond to this situation and the relationships it implies? To marketing managers, it’s a foolproof plan to garner important customer insight at a low, controllable cost. To everyone else, it’s one perfectly engineered for this to happen (though we certainly can’t say that it does in every case): understandably reluctant interviewers save shoppers the hassle from interruption and maximize their revenue by simply filling-out the surveys themselves!

Now, these interviewers aren’t stupid. They know that the surveys are going to be read, so they might go sit-down somewhere, like the mall’s food court, and answer each survey a little differently. They might channel their friends and family in fillingin the answers (to reflect what they think are realistic concerns of real people they know). In other cases, they just vary the answers so that it’s clear they weren’t all filledout the same (which might give away that someone did exactly what they’re doing). All of this money and effort has now yielded “valuable” customer insight appropriate for just one purpose: recycling the paper. The research includes no real customer insight because it doesn’t include answers from any actual customers.

But before we get too judgmental about these interviewers’ behavior, let’s also acknowledge the likelihood that the mall intercept was going to generate useful research in the first place. No one from the company buying the research is involved: not from marketing, product development, sales, customers service, or anywhere else. No one from the company has met any real customers, let alone learned anything about their lives and motivations. Likely, the survey questions haven’t even been vetted for possible bias or ambiguity. Any answers from any real customers (from, perhaps, more honest or diligent interviewers) haven’t been followed-up on or connected to the company’s goals, mission, or intent. In effect, there is no relationship.

For the most part, the entire endeavor was a waste from the moment the marketing manager decided to pawn-off the duty completely to an outside agency. You can just imagine what will happen if she doesn’t realize that the report she’s later given contains exactly this lack of insight or conclusions that might lead in exactly the wrong direction.

Thankfully, the mall intercept isn’t common practice anymore. However, there are plenty of other market research tools currently in popular use that are just as misguided, mostly because they assume that only quantitative results are important, but also because quantitative reports impart an air of accuracy. The statistics make us feel confident about the research, often without inquiring whether the right questions.