"Whatever the project, we strongly feel that we've received the proverbial "110%."

Mike Homola
Group Manager, Marketing Research, Sprint

Something Extraordinary to Give
“I began this business more than 19 years ago because I listened. I listened to clients, who clamored for greater insights than they were getting from “typical” research. I also got quiet and heard rumblings in my own gut. When I got really quiet and listened more intently a hopeful melody began to emerge, and turned to a full-tilt jig. The lyrics went something like this: ‘You can do this! Get to it! This is your chance! You have something extraordinary to give.’”

— Cynthia Atwood-Steinberg, President and Founder

A Story Worth Retelling

OPEN CIRCLES: Bringing down walls and building bridges in their place, through the art and science of listening.

One of the top two drugstore chains in the nation was frustrated…very frustrated. The company wanted each of its 5,000 stores to reflect the unique needs of the consumers who lived around the corner. Many of the stores were in urban neighborhoods. Some were deteriorating. All served minority populations.

Here was the frustration — women who lived only blocks from this drugstore were taking a bus or driving to a more distant beauty specialty store to purchase their eye shadow, foundation, lipstick, moisturizers and shampoos.

This company was missing out on sales, which certainly was a problem, but the company wasn’t exactly sure why. Its vendors, suppliers, and buyers didn’t know either, and didn’t seem to care. They routinely dismissed the importance of the urban stores and the needs of these customers. They claimed that their products, their advertising, and their merchandising were good enough.

This is where we came in. The company said, “Help us get the attention of our major beauty brands, the New York agencies, and our own buyers. They need to get the message, they need to know there’s a problem, and they need to solve it! We’ll bring in the cosmeticians from around the country. We’ll get our vendors to come. You make it happen!”

The Power of Listening
After establishing the focus group protocol, we took the big guys out of the dark and took the cosmeticians out of the “fishbowl”. We moved everyone to a larger room and seated all 27 of our clients in a large circle. We asked the cosmeticians to come join us in the inner circle. We also placed an empty chair in the inner circle, and we invited those from the outer circle to come join the conversation whenever they liked by taking a seat in the chair.

As these cosmeticians shared their frustrations and challenges, something odd began to happen. There was no snickering, no pointing and no cocky glances. There was a different kind of silence, a silence with energy in it; bodies leaning in, eyes focused, faces inquisitive. The Open Circle magic was happening.

The eight women of the inner circle – with different cultures, colors and needs – passionately described their lives and the lives of their neighbors and customers. The outer circle listened.

We watched the VP of merchandising, the ad executives, the product development directors, and the marketing gurus each come up, cautiously at first, and then eagerly take his/her place in the empty chair, looking into the faces of the women, asking questions.

“Tell me again why three shades of brown are not enough? What’s wrong with leaning over just a little to get your shampoo?” Then more boldly challenging them, “Why is it you’re so pissed off at Halle Berry?" and "Don’t you know it’s not possible to leave eye shadow samples out in your kind of stores?”

Knowing how to create an environment where that kind of honest exchange can take place, where respondents feel safe and respected and clients feel free to ask difficult questions is what we do at Sounding House. On that day, walls were brought tumbling down and the beginnings of bridges were built. Not completed maybe, but certainly the pinions were put in place.

That’s Sounding House: bringing down walls and building bridges in their place, through the art and science of listening. Whether the job is one day of usability interviews, or a multi-market , multi-product exploration, Sounding House delivers savvy research and uncommon insights.


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