How do you Play the Hunger Game if you Aren’t Hungry?

The deadline for our client’s online focus group was closing in, but we only had three tentative participants, none of which had confirmed.

I pulled the “all hands on deck” trigger and the people in my office got on the phones to “dial for participants,” including me.

The value proposition was simple: $125 for an hour of their time to tell us what they think about a product category. We had already held five other online focus groups, all successful. Yet for some reason, the one in the Northeast stalled.

Perhaps it was a holiday weekend (Easter and Passover) coming up? That couldn’t be it entirely since two days prior to this date we held a successful one in the South and filled the zoom room.

What was it that tanked participation?

Heart of Darkness

Like Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s novel, I journeyed down a river, only my river was the phone connections. I learned in my career there are reasons for everything if you look close enough.

I made 75 calls that day and drew a conclusion after speaking with the others who made calls from our company: people aren’t hungry.

By that I mean, hunger drives the search for knowledge, and hunger makes the search continuous. Every call you make, every contact you make and experience you have each and every day produces information that aggregated, will lead to knowledge.

Some said I was mis-reading the situation…that people were just too busy. Others maintained it was the holiday. But “too busy” or “a holiday is here” are not reasons enough to pass up $125 for sharing ideas if you are hungry for knowledge.

Besides, I got an email the following day from one very hungry to participate I called (only I had to tell him we’re rescheduling for a couple of weeks later because of our failure to fill the room that day, which he said he would be happy to attend, and did sign up for the reschedule).

No, something else was going on that day; there seemed to be a genuine lack of hunger in gaining and sharing knowledge.

Here are some of the stories from my journey down the phone river that gave me this impression.

One target thought I was a competitor trying to steal his information. I said, “Wait, you don’t understand. You’re a distributor, right?” He answered affirmatively. “My client is a manufacturer, not a competitor. You stock his products.” He replied, “I don’t believe you,” and hung up.

I tested many different approaches in the pitch, which all worked to varying degrees in the past. I spoke with many excellent gatekeepers who were polite, professional, and eager to help. Sometimes I felt the gatekeepers were actually more hungry than the targets I spoke with.

When I got through to a target, things kept going South.

I couldn’t blame the lists, either. We had excellent lists. I knew the targets were valid because we build and maintain these lists for a living.

Even when a person had left the company as much as a year ago (which does not in itself invalidate a list and happens to the best of lists), the person answering the phone was either equally qualified or able to point me in the right direction for the right person. But it always ended up the same: the river of no return.

Each time I was able to get through, I still came up empty. Take what happened with Ashley (names here are all changed in this blog).

Gone for the Day

“I can’t participate without corporate approval,” Ashely said who worked at the perfect company for our focus group. “I can give you that number.” I called it and spoke to Michael who said, “That’s no problem, Jim, and I’ll call Ashley right now and give her the OK from our end.” I talked with him for five minutes about his acquisition of the target company. It was a very good conversation. Mergers and acquisitions are happening at record levels these days it seems.

I waited ten minutes and called Ashley back. “She’s left for the day,” I was told, flags immediately going up in my head. “She’ll be back tomorrow,” the person said. “Thanks,” I said with a smile. “I’ll do that.” I thought, something else is happening here. Did Michael call? Did Ashley just use the corporate office excuse? Lots of things go through your mind when you are hungry for knowledge.

I called back an hour later and Donald answered the phone. I learned long ago that changing your coordinates often leads to success, like calling back when you run into a wall and getting someone else on the phone.

I explained the value proposition to Donald and how I was going to speak with Ashley about my focus group but she left the office, and how Michael at the corporate office gave the OK for her to do the focus group.

“Gee, we were just talked about this idea,” Donald said excitedly. “We were just talking about having such a meeting with our different locations; you know we have a half dozen different offices and a new owner and everything. I’m new here myself, but this sounds like exactly what we want. Let me get my boss, Brenden, on the phone.” I was put on hold for a full minute and then a curt voice of said, “Yea, this is Brenden. What’s this all about?” I explained.

“Who is your client,” he asked? “Well, I can’t share that with you as it would destroy the intent of the focus group to find out unbiased information, but I assure you, it’s a major company that you carry in your product lineup and saw them listed on your website. This focus group is a chance to interface with others like you in this business about this product category…a chance to learn and exchange ideas…”

“Not interested,” he almost shouted not waiting for me to finish my sentence, and abruptly hung up.

Wow, I thought to myself. I’ve been hung up on before, and I usually call back and tell them, “Excuse me, but I think we were disconnected.” There was something in the hang up that said it would be a bad idea this time.

Besides, you can “lead the horse to water but you can’t make them drink” is what Brenden was all about. The experience still supported my thesis. Claire did that too.


Claire worked at a high-end showroom in New York and was one of the kindest people I ever spoke with for under five minutes. She not only helped me by giving me a person she thought would be perfect for the focus group, but she apologized for not being able to participate herself. She genuinely wanted to.

“I’m just awfully busy, and it’s Passover,” she said. “As much as I’d like to do it, I just can’t.”

The human voice is a marvelous thing. You can hear tone, you can hear changes in expression. If you listen carefully, you can hear a person smile, or express in this case, true regret.

I told her I’d call her in a few weeks because I would still like to talk to her about her ideas in the product category. “I’ll be happy to speak with you,” she said brightening up.

Then I emailed the person she gave me, and within two hours received this curt email reply to my pitch:

No thank you.

I left voicemail after voicemail, sent email after email. Sometimes I did both. It was all very odd.

The next day, I received a voicemail: “Hey Jim, Tom just returning your phone call I should be able to participate in your focus group I think you said about 6 o’clock today so just to see if you want to give me a call back let me know the procedure and a yeah look forward to speaking to you thank you…” I called Tom back and told him the rescheduling and he eagerly agreed to the later date.

That made two. Not enough to pull it off.


Was it the holiday that was the root cause of the lack of response? Most people will say it was.

But the focus group was the Thursday before the holiday kicked in, and in my humble opinion, something else was cooking underneath the surface, at least in the Northeast.

Technically, I got two out of my 75 calls with a positive response. In telemarketing, that’s my Win:Loss Ratio. I need 75 calls to make two good ones — a horrible ratio, especially when you’re not selling anything but giving away $125 for an hour of time and opinions.

Prior groups we conducted for this project were full of rich ideas, comprised of veterans of the industry and newbies. While I can’t tell you all we learned from these exchanges because our work for our client is proprietary, I can share this with you: the people in those groups expressed concern, professionalism, candidness, and honesty. They were eager to share their knowledge, and gain insights from others who were in their profession. They shared the good, bad and ugly around brands in the product category, and frankly, confirmed what we had already found out in our quantitative research for our client.

In other words, it was an unqualified success because we gained knowledge.

Except for the Northeast Focus Group.

The morale of my adventure is, I guess, be aware of holidays, but always keep trying. I met some wonderful people in my recruiting adventure, people like me who were hungry for knowledge.

I talked with a customer service rep who had the knowledge I wanted, but was humble enough to decline because her title wasn’t the “right” one. I spoke to a new receptionist who spent 10 minutes putting me on and off hold until she found the right person. In other words, I had a great adventure, even though I failed. Even the hang ups were enlightening.

Which is why I love using the phone. In this digital age, nothing beats talking with people. And hearing for yourself a human voice.

I have a sign in my office: A day without work is a day without food. Strange, but I’m always hungry. Let me know what you think.

And by the way, when we rescheduled a couple of weeks later, we had seven people. Jam packed, full of knowledge. Thanks for reading.

For more insights follow interlinejim@twitter

One thought on “How do you Play the Hunger Game if you Aren’t Hungry?

  1. Heard from a good friend via email, “It’s so true, this is exactly why my office sign on my back wall says “Stay Hungry Hustle Hard” as a little reminder of every day what it takes!” Thanks for the comment Rob!

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