It is essential to understand the dynamics of the market you are researching.  As a market researcher, you must appropriately advise your client on how a research project should be implemented, manage their expectations and deliver accurate insight that brings value to their business operations.  The same rules apply when implementing a cross cultural research project.  Making assumptions about a market, its culture and how its consumers and businesses operate will result in a study becoming complicated, costly and essentially unachievable.

Laying the foundations

You must plan extensively to ensure you identify and understand all aspects of a cross cultural research study.  This understanding must span every country and culture incorporated in the project.  Shortcuts at this stage are not an option.  Without intensive planning, you could grossly underestimate the work required to complete the project, the fees necessary to subsidize the project and generally over-promise your deliverables.  To avoid those potential outcomes, you must consider the following key questions:

Is your target audience covered?

Carefully consider the demographic that you plan to research.  A United Kingdom (U.K.) study centered on London for example does not reflect the economic conditions across the entire country.  Similarly, in Asia-Pacific, selecting two or three countries to research will not offer a ‘representative sample’ of the region because of each nation’s diverse and distinctive culture. 

When is a large company not a large company?

Researchers must acknowledge the differences within global economies and clarify definitions such as what constitutes a large organization or a wealthy individual.  Failure to define accurately the target sample within each country will result in an inability to achieve desired sample sizes. For example, within the U.S., researching 1,000 companies with x thousand employees would be fairly straightforward as businesses of this size and structure are common.  In smaller countries, such as Singapore or Belgium, however, companies of this size are rare and in some instances may not exist. 

Where can I source respondent details?

You must devote time to sourcing the details of potential respondents.  Each country has its own rules and regulations concerning accessing personal or business information, which can cause unexpected complications.

Germany and Japan – two very different countries – each have numerous privacy laws limiting the availability of commercial and personal information. From a different perspective, India is not restricted by such laws, but there has never been a need for public directories, so businesses today are spending time creating and maintaining their own.

At this stage you should begin to understand in what capacity the information can be used, and if the interviewer is legally required to inform the respondent about how their details have been sourced.

How do I avoid getting lost in translation?

When developing your questionnaire, you must take care to ensure that interviewers use correct terminology, even if the different countries speak the same language.  When conducting the research interview, an interviewer must know how to address the interviewee in an inappropriate manner.  If the interviewee is spoken to incorrectly – too informally or too formally – they are unlikely to provide the desired feedback or response.

An American company implementing a research study in the U.K. for example should check that no words are misused within the questionnaire, that the interviewer asks the questions as intended and the interviewee correctly understands the meaning.  As stated by the Irish dramatist and socialist George Bernard Shaw, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” 

Does a common language exist?

Translating a questionnaire into numerous languages is expensive. However, by not accommodating this fee and trying to ‘cut corners,’ the study will fail to offer the correct level of detail.  This often happens within European studies.

Although most European professionals speak English fluently, the majority are more comfortable and articulate in their native language.  Therefore, a European project should not be undertaken in English but in the native language of each country.

There are some exceptions to the rule.  In India, where more than 50 languages are spoken, most business research interviews are done in English due to the high level of spoken English within Indian companies.

How far will the dollar go?

It is also important to address the issue of how to convert currency if it is referenced in the questionnaire.  An agency must decide if U.S. dollars are to be used throughout the research study or if the amount should be converted at the current exchange rate.

Another requirement is to ensure the value is aligned to the purchasing power parity. For example, Indian researchers would convert any monetary questions into Rupees and amend the figure to represent the ‘worth’ intended.

Generating Accurate Insight

Due to technological innovations and flexible working patterns, the traditional challenges faced by researchers conducting a cross cultural study, such as time differences, are nonexistent.  Today’s market researchers are more concerned with understanding the advancements of market research techniques and how these impact different cultures depending on a country’s economic prosperity, adoption of technology and cultural limitations.

Which methodology is the most appropriate?

Respecting other cultures means that researchers must adopt a flexible approach when deciding on the research methodology to be implemented.  An example of this is in some Asia-Pacific markets, such as Japan, Thailand and Korea, where it is unacceptable to speak with a stranger for long periods on the phone, so face-to-face interviews are the advised method for data generation.  Face-to-face interviews are also favored in India, however, this is not due to cultural preferences, but instead to the relatively low adoption of landline telephones within the country. 

How do I manage the project in the field?

Once the project is ‘live,’ researchers must closely monitor results.  The precision applied during the planning stages must be maintained and each deadline must be achieved.  One simple delay could have serious consequences.  A system must be in place to sound early warning signs of trouble. Is the research producing inconsistent insight, and could this, for example, be a result of the method used for data collection?  Intervening quickly ensures no long term problems are encountered that would delay the project and have costly consequences. 

What information should I feed back to the client?

The final stages of cleaning and coding the research are extremely time consuming.  The data must be comparable and provide a consistent level of insight across each market. Any suspicious information needs to be queried, a random sample should be re-contacted and any open-ended questions translated back into English.

Simultaneously, a client doesn’t want to have information overload.  Researchers must take time to focus on the facts and figures that offer the most value, and present the information clearly and with distinguishable business actions.

Due to the scale of the project and the many variables involved, allocating time to answering a client’s questions is strongly advised.  This offers an opportunity to share the knowledge of the company, work of the team and position its cultural awareness.

Having a Presence

Central to each element of delivering cross-cultural research – from planning to implementing to debriefing – is understanding the local market.  Researchers should never underestimate the value this adds to the research and profitability of the project. Something ‘unexpected’ will always come up, and having a presence within the country and an understanding of ‘why’ an issue has arisen enables a research agency to deal with it efficiently, reducing costly project delays and client embarrassments

It is important to remember that even markets that appear to be similar in culture or language (for example the U.S. and U.K.) will require terminology to be regionalized and realistic sample sizes to be estimated.