One of the benefits of being a freelance moderator is the opportunity to travel and conduct research with a wide variety of respondents. Sometimes client work took me to cities like San Diego or San Francisco and other times to places like San Luis Obispo or San Antonio. Whether it was a big city with lots of places to shop and eat or a smaller town with charm and a sense of community, I always found something positive to take away as a memory of that city. I especially loved the opportunity to go someplace warm when my city of residence had cold or rainy weather.
Although I had spent less than 100 nights in the state as a child and young adult, being born in Louisiana made me a “native.” I had visited my grandmother there for a week or so over many vacations when I wasn’t living abroad in Asia with my military family. And when someone asks: “Where are you from?” I always answer: “Alexandria, Louisiana, about 90 miles from Baton Rouge.” I love Louisiana cooking and can make a mean gumbo or jambalaya when called on. I don’t make beignets, but if offered one, I always say “Yes.”
So when a soft drink client informed me that one of the sites in a three site study would be New Orleans in February, I relished the chance for warm weather and a visit home. I plotted a stop for real beignets and hoped I could make it to the Bon Ton Café for their famous redfish entrée.
Flying in on the day of the groups put me at the New Orleans airport around noon with plenty of time to check into my hotel, get a bite to eat, and head over to the facility. I was to meet the client by 5pm in Metairie, a close suburb, for the pre briefing and to look over the stimuli to be presented.
When I landed, it was cloudy with the sun peeking out from time to time, but the air was warm even if humidity was the driver for that warmth. By the time I headed over to the facility on the interstate turnpike, the humidity felt like a wet blanket and it had started to drizzle. The drizzle soon turned into a strong rainstorm that I knew would clear in an hour or so, as those living in semi-tropical conditions come to expect as ordinary.
I had clear directions to the site and so my only job entailed looking for the right exit. Traffic slowed as the rain increased and keeping my distance from the car ahead became a challenge. We all crept along at about 25 miles per hour. My exit was about 2 more miles and then it would be a few quick turns to reach the facility.
Then, out of nowhere, the car behind me runs into the back of my rental sedan with a loud clang and bump. We edged our vehicles over to the shoulder and got out to inspect the damage. The driver of the other car was a young soldier in freshly pressed camouflage print khakis and he was crying.
I thought, “Wow…it was really just a fender bender…not much damage to either car…..I wonder why he is crying?”
He pulled himself together and said: “Ma’am, I am so sorry. I am shipping out tonight for Afghanistan and I had just left my wife and baby. I was feeling sorry for myself and not paying attention and I hit you. I am so sorry.”
He looked scared and young and contrite all at the same time and my heart went out to him. I said: “Look, you need to get to the airport, and I need to get to a meeting. There isn’t that much damage to our cars. Let’s just forget the whole thing.” He smiled with relief and shook my hand over and over and said: “Thank you Ma’am, thank you so much.”
We got back in our cars and I rode the shoulder until my exit showed up. I got to the facility with time to spare but realized that while he had just tapped the back of my car, the impact had caused a strong whiplash in my neck. I could already feel the stiffness setting in. I thought: “Darn, I’ve got about 6 hours of time before I can get in a bed and I’ve got to lead back-to-back focus groups for a new client.”
I always carry a long silk scarf and a cashmere muffler to put around my neck when the weather is cold or the air conditioning is too high for my comfort. When I got to the faculty, I asked the hostess to put ice in a baggie and wrap it in a tea towel and give it to me. I just told her that my neck was stiff, but I didn’t give a reason.
I put the ice on the back of my neck and wrapped the silk scarf around it to hold it in place then went in to meet the client team and look at the stimuli to be shown. I told them that I had a slight stiff neck and would be using ice to reduce inflammation. They didn’t ask any questions so I didn’t have to give a reason. They were more concerned with the session starting on time than in my personal issues.
They decided to make a shift in the order the stimuli would be shown and to add two more questions in the section on promotions so I made those changes and got my room set up for the first group.
Before starting that group, I asked the hostess to change out my homemade ice pack for a new one and when I introduced myself to the group I made a joke about being Quasimodo for the evening due to a stiff neck. We all laughed and I never mentioned my neck again.
Between the two groups, I got a third homemade ice pack and switched the damp silk scarf for the cashmere muffler, made the same joke for the second group and kept on moderating.
Normally, at the end of a research day, I ask the client to stay 15 more minutes and meet me at the respondent table for a quick debrief on key take away points from the day so we all leave with a similar understanding of what we learned. A simple chart on the easel labeled AHA on the left side and CONFIRM on the right side allows the client to outflow on what they saw/heard and takes the pressure off the moderator to come up with cogent analytical points before a thoughtful review of the whole day.
However, on this night, the client chose to use that debrief time to not only check on key insights from the day but also to start talking “strategic next steps” with the client team and I became the note-taker for that process. Normally, this exercise would have been over by 10:15pm and on this night that would mean I’d be back in my rental car and into my hotel bed no later than 11pm. The client didn’t close out the debrief session until 11:15pm and only did so when the facility staff hostess said, “We are closing down and locking the doors, so you all will have to go now.”
I could not turn my head to the left or right or even shake it up and down — all that ice made the discomfort tolerable for the last 6 hours but did nothing to ease the spasms that locked my head in a rigid face forward position at 11:30pm.
I said goodnight to client at the front door of the facility and promised to meet them at 5pm on the next night in city number two of the study, secretly hoping I could find enough pain medication to deaden the pain in my neck by then. I wondered about the location of the nearest hospital in relationship to my hotel as I got in the car. As it turned out, I sighted an open drug store on the road back to the interstate, went in and talked to the pharmacist on duty who gave me an over-the-counter muscle relaxant that he said would ease the spasms and allow me to go to sleep. The dosage said two tablets every 6 hours; but he told me to take three right away and then the next dosage could be two tabs.
If there is a patron saint of pharmacists, I would like to light a candle to them. The pharmacist’s advice allowed me to sleep that night and be able to move my head the next morning. When I got on the plane, I took the next dosage and by the time I landed, most of the stiffness rested under the mask of medication. I could do my moderating job that night without an ice pack.
As with all events that have occurred in my moderating life, I looked for the lessons from this experience, and came away with these four:
1) My physical discomfort, illness or health situation should not be shared with the client UNLESS it prevents me from moderating.
2) Make sure I have items in my briefcase to handle my own health and well-being such as a muffler for cold rooms or planes [or for holding ice packs in place] and some power bars.
3) Have a personal ground rule like this: If I can sit up and moderate, do so, even if I have some personal discomfort. My body issues are not the responsibility of the client.
4) Complaining about what is going on with my body is of little interest to a client who has bought my time to reach their research objectives.
I don’t advocate being a martyr as a moderator. If I were truly sick and could not moderate, I would absolutely tell my client. If my body cannot do a decent job of moderating because of a lack of well-being, I would absolutely tell my client. But if I can do the job, even with some discomfort, then I do the job and keep my issues to myself. My clients have invested a lot of time, money, and energy in getting me to a research site to conduct studies to help with short and long term strategies. It is my job to meet that challenge.