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Where is your next billion coming from?: Tom Fuller of Fluent Research

Tom Fuller

Italy. China. Taiwan. SE Asia. The UK. Market research is often critical for companies to know how to tweak products or gauge receptivity when a new venture is launched. Yet the method of conducting the research and generating actionable results, whether B2B or B2C, often makes a major difference in its effectiveness. Tom Fuller, VP at Fluent Research in Manhattan, talks about similarities and differences in conducting research in other countries such as those above, and presents some surprising insights compared to the US. Recruiting the right respondent, an accurate translation (not distorted by minimal budgets), and countries’ cultural priorities often shape the outcome. important than its alternative, and how it’s critical to maintain one’s vision but constantly tweak strategies. Many essential business lessons for executives at all levels.

Highlights:

Tom’s background

Business in China

The similarities between China and Italy

Conducting research with multiple languages and cultures

The difference between China and Taiwan

Tom Fuller Bio:

Tom Fuller is a 25-year veteran of the market research sector and is VP of Business Development at the firm Fluent Research in Manhattan. Fuller has worked in five countries on three continents and has traveled extensively. He has also served as interim CEO of a virtual reality multimedia park in Italy and has been executive producer of Shopping America, a home shopping channel in the Republic of San Marino.

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Full Transcript

Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of Global Gurus, where every Friday we explore stories of international businesses and the people who make them happen.

I’m your host Philip Auerbach of Auerbach International (www.auerbach-intl.com), and today’s guest is Thomas Fuller whom I will introduce in a moment.

Before we start, and as most of you know, we start each segment with a running segment called “Faux pas Fridays,” where we present a funny mistranslation or blooper that does not quite convey the professional image that your company wants to present. And since today’s guest is involved in the market research field, I thought it would be appropriate to give an example of how meanings in English can change when words or phrases are used incorrectly or in the incorrect word order. So, the actual reason for an auto insurance accident is stated in English as follows:

“ I was driving along the road when I looked over at my mother-in-law and hit a tree”

 So there you have it.

Today’s guest is Tom Fuller. Tom is a 25-year veteran of the market research sector and VP of Business Development at the firm Fluid Research in Manhattan. Tom has worked in five countries on three continents and has traveled extensively around the world. He has also served as interim CEO of a virtual reality park in Italy and as executive producer of Shopping America, a home shopping channel in the Republic of San Marino, which is one of the smallest countries in the world and surrounded by Italy.

Welcome, Tom. It’s a pleasure to have you here.

It’s great to be here.

Thank you. 

So, before we begin, perhaps you could plunge in and tell us a bit about your background and how you gained your international experience.

That makes it sound like I had a plan. I joined the Navy out of high school, and they trained me in electronics and cryptography, which gave me enough technical experience to be of value to the market research community once I started working in that sector. My clientele base grew immediately after I began working in that industry. Were multinational technology corporations involved, and did I begin traveling? And the winds of fortune blew me around the world once more. I didn’t have a plan. It just happened that way. I ended up running my own business for about nine years, with offices in Shanghai, the United Kingdom, and San Francisco. This allowed me to visit a lot of countries as well as live in a few others.

And do you speak other languages or just English?

No, I’m fluent in Italian. I am barely functional in Spanish and French, and I can get around a little bit in Mandarin.

Excellent. And tell us about some of your experiences and some of your most successful ventures as you’ve launched them abroad.

Well, the company I had on my own was fairly successful in China and the UK but didn’t get much traction in the US; too much competition. There are about 30,000 companies in the US that have the same NIC [industrial classification] code as we do. 

But we did well in China, partnering with a mobile telecom operator and using them as a panel for market research purposes, as well as doing some work for the UK Department for Education, which was a lot of fun.

My very first experience in market research was interesting, to say the least. We were evaluating an e-commerce website for a very large computer manufacturer, and it turned out that they were trying to roll it out the first all-in-one printer, fax machine, copier, and scanner on their website and at the end of the research, it became clear that their brand was so popular they didn’t even need any e-commerce websites. So, I suggested to them that they put their brand-new toy on a site that had just changed its name to eBay, and they did that. And it was a huge success, and they told me later that it got them $138 million in incremental revenues, and they bought me a very nice piece of glassware as a thank-you.

That’s great. And this was a market research company in the UK, did you say?

No, it was in the United States at the time, in Silicon Valley.

And it’s not your current company; it was another firm.

This was the very first market research company I worked with.

Right. I’m very interested. You mentioned that you don’t know who this first company is that you worked with, but the company was in China and the UK.

That was my company. I started a company. I ran a company called Enquire Services for nine years.

There is a common misconception in the United States that doing business in China is difficult and time-consuming because we must cultivate relationships, build trust, and so on. So, when you launched it, did you have immediate success, or did you have to build it up over many years?

We had been in business for about eight months before things began to click, but things went pretty well after that, thanks more to connecting luck and connections than any particular skill on my part.

And was there anything about doing business in China that was different in terms of “you can”? For example, you can ask Americans questions that the Chinese may not be able to answer.

Yeah, there are a lot of differences between the two cultures. In China much of the time, you must be patient and allow things to unfold at a different pace, one dictated by the Chinese client rather than your own business needs. And if you can adapt to that and be patient with that, then it goes OK. But I found myself many times in front of a client who became a billionaire without the help of market research, and pretty much the first question I was asked on more than one occasion was, “How did you make a billion dollars without market research? Can you explain it to me? Why do I require your assistance?”

And how did you answer that?

Well, where is your next billion coming from?

Ah, it’s a great answer. Right? 

I didn’t use that on the first one; that was the lesson I learned from the first time it happened.

That’s great. When you say that … just let things unfold in China. In market research in the United States, there are normally some questions that the interviewer asks. And you can either ask them in that order or skip around to elicit the answers that you’re looking for the questions that you’re looking for. Is it the same in China, or is there a different approach?

It depends on what kind of research you’re conducting. Before, I was referring to actual business negotiations. When interviewing Chinese people, whether businesspeople or consumers, if you’re doing a quantitative survey, you pretty much stick to an exact list of questions, but in qualitative research like focus groups or in-depth interviews, you pretty much have to structure things around the individuals’ sensitivities to the people you’re talking to them, and that’s not just culture specific. That’s the same in almost any environment. But in China, there is a certain tendency to be more reserved and to keep certain sectors of questions off-limits that wouldn’t be in America.

And what kinds of questions would you keep off-limits in China?

People in America and Western cultures will answer questions on the topic unless you ask about their finances or their sex lives. They are in addition to those in China. Those things about anything close to cultural or political sensibilities are pretty much off-limits. And you have to kind of steer around whatever the sensitivities of the news of the day are. It’s pretty much an autocratic culture. It’s got a lot of censorship. I love the Chinese people. They’re great, but they’re in an environment that encourages reserve, so to speak.

You said you had no questions about finances or sex lives. But I’m aware of that In Japan, certainly, and I think in other Asian cultures too, it is common, or at least appropriate, for people to talk about finances. You are aware that my rent is this; my salary is that, and it’s more open than it would be in our country. Is that the same as that? Is that true?

That’s not so much because the people who don’t have a lot of money don’t want to admit it. And the people who do have a lot of money really don’t want to admit it. 

Want them to make money?

Right. 

Keep it secret from the tax authorities and others. Interesting. What about other countries that you’ve dealt with in terms of the interview approach in the market research approach? How would it be different?

Even the moment when I was looking at you, I watched some of your other great podcasts, by the way. What came to mind were the cultural similarities between China and Italy. That makes sense to some people. But culturally, they have a lot in common, including sensitivity about finances, not so much about sex lives, but being very careful about talking about money. They both appear to be, in some ways, handicapped by the depth of their cultures and the long, rich histories that they have in both places. There’s just a lot in common between those two places. The emphasis on family, and the somewhat pronounced distrust of governments.

That is the thing that struck me the most about all of my international experiences: just being in China, you’re reminded of Italy, and vice versa.

That’s fascinating; I’ve never heard anyone make those comparisons before. That’s very intriguing. What exactly do you mean by “handicapped by a long history”?

In the arts and culture, for example, they seem to not be moving forward as much, except that in the last five or six years it’s changed because it seemed they might have thought there was no point because the classical arts, literature, and plastic arts were so dramatic and wonderful that you couldn’t hope to match Li Po’s poetry or Michelangelo’s art or Raphael. 

Is it more like emulating previous masters?

or being intimidated by them?

And therefore, not creating new and vibrant forms?

Well, it’s changing now, both in Italy and in China. It’s in the process of changing, but there’s this kind of gap where English literature and French photography, and all of that is really dynamic and going forward while Italy and China were at a stalemate, and I believe that was one of the reasons—no.

In terms of research in other countries, how, is it similar or different than in the US?

Recruiting people to participate is easier in China and more difficult in Italy than in the US. In China, it’s because of its relative newness. What happens with market research is that the response rate declines over time. People are eager to participate in market research at the start of their online experience or the first time they receive a phone call. However, after a few attempts, they become a little bored with it, and it becomes increasingly difficult to engage.

In China due to the relative newness of access to the Internet and even mobile telephony, they are still more willing to participate than in the US, and in Italy, it was strong at the very beginning but then it declined very quickly.

So that means you have to constantly look for a new source of interviewees or participants?

That is, that’s true in every culture, but it’s more pronounced, say, in the United States and Italy.

Interesting, and does it depend on the subject, whether it’s consumer, business, or any specific subject?

It is the same phenomenon, though the rates are slightly different with business-to-business research. When you want to talk to a CEO, you’re just going to have to pay a lot of money to get them to give you an hour of their time, and then maybe take him out to lunch and pick him up in a very nice car. It’s difficult to take them out to lunch.

For the customers it depends on the subject matter. And it’s not so difficult if you’re fortunate and happy, and you’re researching a hot topic. If it’s something obscure, then you have to grind the sausage pretty hard.

What about in other parts of Europe? How does that differ?

France is kind of similar to Italy. Germany is pretty easy. Scandinavian countries are also pretty easy to deal with. Yes, the Benelux countries are a little bit harder, and then, the Southern Med is a little bit difficult.

So, what happens next? What makes it different or what makes it harder in these countries?

There is still a digital divide in places like Greece and Spain. A lot of the people that you want to talk to don’t have access to the Internet for online surveys, and they’re not happy about answering questions on the telephone.

Is it because they’re untrusting or for another reason?

I think it’s more that they don’t want to spend the time; they have a life, and it doesn’t include me.

And do you ever offer to pay people? 

Always.

And they still won’t? They are still reluctant to do it?

We probably don’t pay enough. That’s all for now. But if somebody you know knows that a client wants to survey 5000 people in six different countries, they have a budget that includes how much you’re going to pay for each respondent, and that budget has to be kind of low to win the project. So you have to kind of really push to get enough people to respond in some countries.

Because of the nature of market research, you must elicit responses and so on. For other reasons, do you feel that the research is often accurate, or do you feel it’s skewed?

If it is created privately, it is subject to the skill of the market researcher. If you draw up a questionnaire correctly and if you make sure you are speaking to the right people and you engage with them on terms that are comfortable for them, then yes. If the most common problem with market research is not being able to find the right person to talk to. If you blow that then you’re out of luck. You won’t be able to obtain that cultural nuance if you conduct a sloppy, hurried survey and don’t have the right translators. 

You know there are a lot of pitfalls if you do everything correctly in each different country, but if you do everything correctly, then yes, you can trust the results. You know, companies very similar to ours predict election results very well. They can tell what movie is going to be the most popular. What new video is going to be the next big thing, what Netflix should be doing. So, if you do it right, it works.

Interestingly, you mentioned not having the right translators for this. Our language translation agency has primarily translated surveys in this country but of ethnicity, Chinese to English and Spanish to English are two examples when they fill in the blanks and so forth. So yeah, that is also very interesting. And you’re right that a slight nuance can change the meaning whether done correctly or incorrectly.

Yeah, like in the Hispanic community, if you’re doing a survey in Spain and also in Mexico, you’re not going to have the same language in both of them

Right. Yes, and different words have, of course, different meanings, and the nuances can be difficult. Do you get involved with political research? Your firm? 

Rarely.

We conduct a lot of socially relevant research for nonprofits and large associations. And we do advisory work for organizations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. As a result, we do things that are influenced by politics. But we don’t like political polling. Who do you like better in the next election? We don’t do that.

I’ve received a lot of surveys in the mail and sometimes by phone, and I find that they’re so despicably written that they’re skewed: What do you think of this ultra-liberal policy perpetuated by this party?

See, that’s not market research. That’s a solicitation for donations.

Yeah, and of course, it’s in the form of a survey.

Sure 

And I get these very often. When political market research calls, I will tell them at the end …

I’ve been in the market research field for many years and in the marketing field, and your survey is 100% invalid because of the way that you phrased it. You’re not asking questions that are neutral.  You’re asking questions that are soliciting one point of view or a specific result, and therefore, when you publish this, you know it’s misleading and wrong.

And it’s push polling, and it’s for a specific purpose, and it is as far away from market research as you possibly can get.

Yeah, and then people believe these results, which is worse.

What about other countries, like those in Southeast Asia or other parts of the world in which you’ve worked? Do their cultures have an impact on how people would respond?

Up to a certain extent, yes, but again, it comes back to the same pillars of doing successful market research internationally. Finding the right respondent necessitates the use of the proper survey instrument, which includes a properly translated questionnaire and a questionnaire constructed most effectively to engage the respondent. 

But that’s different in every country. In Jakarta, if you’re talking to Indonesians, you have to do things very, very differently. Given that, Jokowi [nickname of country’s president] being in charge affects the outward appearance of people in Indonesia, compared to prior administrations’. People now have a different economic situation, which gives them a different viewpoint on a lot of the subjects. You just have to be aware of those things when you start the research. 

The same is true in Malaysia and Vietnam.

Can you give examples of what you’re referring to?

So, as I mentioned previously, I met in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Yeah, I went to Jakarta to supervise focus groups with Indonesians, and it was about consumer electronics goods. And in preparing the survey, I had to get there a little bit early and make dramatic revisions to the focus group topic guide. Because so many consumer electronics items had been introduced just over the past two or three years, people were still overly influenced by the newness of the technology. That’s what they were experiencing, so I had to adjust the topic guide for the focus groups to reflect that, and it turned a 90-minute focus group into about 2 1/2 hours.

Are these overseas sessions interpreted automatically?

What happens is that they’re recorded, then transcribed, then translated, but also in the backroom where I’m watching the focus group, there is a dual- interpreter that listens to them and gives me a running commentary. It isn’t word for word. But it tells me what they are saying. So, if I have a question for the moderator of the focus group, I can put it on a piece of paper and send it into the room, or if I want them to delve into a subject more deeply, I can just get the message in and have it go on that way. It’s not perfect, but it works, yeah?

And, of course, people are answering in their native languages, right? Very fascinating. Are there any difficulties with the actual translation that you’re getting? It could be that the question is misunderstood, or the wrong words are used, or the wrong concepts are used, and it has a different meaning than what you expect.

Not so much.

The real issue that we have with translation; we’ve experimented with several different translation agencies, and I’ve done a lot of experimenting over the 26 years I’ve been doing this. There are translation agencies that start by doing machine translation. That is speech-to-text, and then they try. Add it over the top of it, which normally does not go well.

I hate to say it, but to do a good translation, you need a person who is listening to the recording and translating it word for word. As much as I admire Google and its work, Speech-to-text isn’t quite there yet.

Right. 

Right? 

Well, the rule is that if you use machine translation, which is the proper word for software translation like Google Translate, you must have a human editor who speaks the native language. And of course, in this case, the person would speak fluent English and understand who we are talking about, who has a master’s degree in the art of translation, and who speaks the subject matter of whatever the session is about so that the person understands the nuances and the concepts and so forth.

And that works. 

You know that works if the human editor is as qualified as you describe and has the time to do the job. Obviously, given the deadline pressures and budgets that affect translation companies, they can’t always deliver on that ideal.

Right, and that’s another reason why the research may be less than valid. 

And that’s true.

I believe you mentioned working in Taiwan as well. Is that correct?

Yes, it is.

Are there differences between China and Taiwan? In China, you can’t deal with political topics, of course. But are there other cultural differences between the two countries?

Yes, there are. And given the closeness of the two cultures, this is surprising. Taiwan is more open and more willing to discuss subjects that might be almost taboo in Mainland China. But there is also a sort of personal reserve. 

They are the Taiwanese. Again, they are wonderful, wonderful people. They are more reserved and conservative, but the Chinese, the mainland Chinese, and the big cities are experiencing this new economic growth and getting these exciting jobs and new start-ups, and all of that.

Taiwan, I think you would almost say they were more comfortable. They have sort of a 1950s attitude towards job security, you know, taking care of business, getting married, having kids, and doing things in a more traditional fashion.

 So those are the main differences that I know.

Well, I think the Mainlanders are also interested in marriage and kids.

Oh, yeah, if they can afford it.

They can afford it, yes. But you’re saying, well, let’s use the word nouveau riche because the Mainlanders are nouveau riche.

 Yes,

Newly acquired, and money is new to their culture, as opposed to Taiwan’s longer 70-year history. Then that skews how people look at things.

I think so, yes.

Very interesting. Are there other similarities or differences with other countries you’ve dealt with? 

Well, let’s see. I find the UK to be about as different from America as possible for another English-speaking country. 

The famous quote is that England and America are divided by a common language, and I don’t know. No, I don’t believe so. Then there are differences. But I find the English to be very different from the Americans in many ways. 

I believe that the English are more skeptical than cynical. They are pragmatic. They tend to be very calm until they’re not, and then when they cross that line, you just kind of want to stand out of the way. The Americans fly off the handle quickly but then seem to recover just as quickly, and the English, on the whole, I find to be, I hate to say this, and it’s a gross exaggeration, they seem to be smarter.

Interesting, do you think they’re better educated in that way or just more aware?

This is probably directly related to my job specialty, where, as you know, I deal with fairly senior people with university educations, which in England means very, very smart. In America, it just means you went to college and got a degree so that probably influences my opinion.

Very interesting. So, are you talking about senior executives or are you talking about consumers?

Well, on a business level, in terms of the relationships I had, there were business relationships. You know people, right?

So, this is going to be research.

Yeah, no, no, no, no. This is what my client is trying to get people to do business with. My customers, clients, and prospects are the focus of my business. They were all senior executives from well-known corporations. 

The people with whom I was conducting research ranged from consumers to business owners, but in both countries, they ranged from consumers to business owners to IT administrators’ companies with over 5000 employees, and so on. 

And, in my experience, saying that someone is educated in England has more value than saying somebody is educated in America.

Right, yes, the degrees mean more. And when you say you’ve said the English, do you mean the British, including the Scots, the Welsh, and the Northern Irish? Or do you just mean English?

Now, pretty much all of the preceding is true: There are some wickedly smart people in Scotland, and some of the smartest people I ever met were from Wales.

Wow, so you mean the British, not just the English?

Right.

Yeah, very fascinating. 

Is there ever a time when you noticed differences in the way words are used in British and American English?

And there are lots of them.

And you know, I think back to the movie Love Actually. They’re laughing about the differences in pronunciation. But there are wild differences in meaning as well. 

You are aware that there are lexical differences, but there are words that you are familiar with. If you say that in American English, you will get a real stare in English in England, and vice versa. Oh boy, now you can ask me for examples, and I’m going to struggle to think of any.

Well, that’s OK. Have you come across any that you know are comical issues in any other country? Culturally, linguistically, or anything?

Well, you know, there’s something similar I heard on a recent podcast that you did, but I’m going to say it anyway. 

I was invited to a family dinner in Italy, and I was new to the country, and didn’t speak Italian. I was visiting my brother’s girlfriend’s family, and they sat me down and brought out a plate of pasta, which was wonderful, of course, and I ate it, and they said, “Wow, you must be hungry. Do you want some more?” So, yeah, I’m hungry, but that was just the prelude to a four-hour meal with eight different courses, and by the end, I was full of pasta. They came out with the second course, and of course, they were being polite. You just keep eating, eating, and eating. And boy, I didn’t sleep that night.

It’s funny, but it wasn’t a matter of wine; it was just a matter of pasta. Very good. Is there anything else you’d like to add or to clarify?

You know, given what’s going on in the world today with war and inflation and all of that, my experience traveling internationally has been – and you’ve heard me say it a couple of times during this interview – how nice people are, and I have found that to be true everywhere I go: that people are nice, decent human beings, and I just hope we don’t forget that.

Yeah, that’s very true. I found the same thing, but ultimately, at their core, people are nice and friendly, decent, and helpful. And if you’re kind and considerate, especially if you’re a foreigner in their country, then they may go out of their way to help you a bit more.

In Taiwan, if you are foolish enough to open a map, you will attract a horde of Taiwanese people trying to help you get to where you want to go. 

They will walk you to your destination.

That’s great. I’ve heard that in other countries too. That’s wonderful. 

Yeah, I’ve done that when I see foreigners on the street in my city in the United States. I always go up and assist them, and sometimes they’re overjoyed. And they are occasionally—I wouldn’t say offended. But you know, I would think I’m looking at my phone to figure this out for myself. I don’t need your help, right? And it’s probably an age difference or something of that nature: wanting to be helpful vs. relying on your technology.

 So well, Tom Fuller. Thank you so much. I appreciate your wonderful insights and your help and your great expertise in the international market research field.

It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you. This has been Philip Auerbach of Auerbach International. I hope you will join us next Friday for another edition of Global Gurus and their stories of international business. Thank you. 

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