By Ron Sellers
As a new component of GRIT this year, Ron Sellers of Grey Matter Research agreed to conduct a series of in-depth interviews by telephone with client-side researchers to explore their views on vendor selection and adoption of new tools and techniques. The participants were:
- Brian Cain, Merck
- Jill Capps, Gorton’s
- Sylvia Choe, Marriott
- Tom Morder, Chick-fil-A
- Kyle Nel, Lowe’s Home Improvement
- Kelley Peters, Post Foods
- Edwin Roman, ESPN
- Stacey Symonds, Orbitz
- Bill Tamulonis, Erickson Senior Living
- Marc Philippe Witham, Schneider Electric
- Dan Womack, Aflac
Five participants were interviewed about research vendor marketing – how suppliers market and promote their services, how clients learn about new vendors, etc. The other six were interviewed about “NextGen” insights techniques ranging from mobile research to Biometrics, and the future of the insights industry. All respondents were guaranteed that their specific comments would remain anonymous.
Today we’re going to give a peek at the section from the GRIT report that details their views on Vendor Marketing efforts. Check out the full report for more data and in-depth analysis.
Although obviously there is no quantitative projectability involved, it is still interesting to note how much agreement there was throughout this topic. Generally, participants report being bombarded by vendor marketing, promotion, and sales attempts. Unsolicited emails are most common for these clients, followed by phone calls. But for clients, one of the preferred and most common ways of finding out about new vendors is word of mouth.
- “Everybody says they do great work. I’ll trust somebody whose opinion I trust, so it’s mostly word of mouth.”
- “The most common way would be just word of mouth; a personal referral. So I’d say past knowledge and experience would be the number one way.”
- “A lot of it is word of mouth. And the other group is all from conferences who’ve presented.”
The second way that clients learn about new vendors is at conferences, particularly if the vendor is actually presenting. At the same time, some clients did note that conferences can be frustrating, because so many vendors target them during that short time.
- “People that we see at a conference or a seminar. That’s how we ended up with our online software vendor. I had known a little bit about them in the past, but I went to an AMA conference or workshop on online research, and they were there giving the presentation. They kind of sold me. So that’s very effective.”
- “I think it’s finding the right events and probably finding the right ways (to approach people). Because the thing that I find terribly frustrating at conferences is people just out of the blue showing up, or literally bugging you to death when you have that two or three days out of the office that you rarely get to do something other than work for a few minutes.”
Networking and personal relationships are absolutely critical for most of these clients.
- “I’ll be honest, the [people] that I generally meet and wind up doing business with are the ones who aren’t trying to sell anything. They’re doing something to give back to the industry or contribute to the work we do as a whole. And I get to know them through that, and over time I get to know their business, and we find a way to work together.”
- “I would emphasize the social media aspect of it. If I’ve seen a good comment (on LinkedIn), I have contacted the person. That was an element in choosing somebody for an Ethnography study that we just completed.”
- “It’s hard to differentiate between vendors. I think that’s why, at least for me, it comes down to more of the personal connection. Like if I’m at a seminar and sitting at a table with somebody from Synovate, in my mind, that’s going to give them a plus over someone I don’t know from Nielsen or Burke. Meet me in person.”
Clients reported that the personal element is critical, and the key to that for them is the people behind the company or the methodology.
- “One of the huge things for me is the people. And the longer I do this work, the more I’m convinced that the individuals behind it are the most critical part.”
- “Get to know me first and worry about the sale after that.”
There is very little feeling that research vendors have differentiated brands. Some clients tended to differentiate a few vendors by size or by methodology or specialty, but the brands themselves generally had little real meaning to clients. This is particularly true with services such as qualitative recruiters, field centers, and other established methods where there’s not much that’s revolutionary in terms of the approach offered – clients really couldn’t name many brands that stand out to them in any way or have any equity.
- “I think it’s very undifferentiated. If I were to think of a good brand of automobiles, I can immediately think of a Mercedes. When it comes to market research vendors, no, I don’t think there are really strong brands out there. I can’t say it’s impossible, but I haven’t seen it.”
- “Very undifferentiated. It’s sad, really. And it always surprises me, given the work that we all do – you would think that we would understand [brand differentiation] as well or better than anybody. But that’s not the case.”
- “I’d say it’s mostly an undifferentiated kind of mess out there. I’d say by and large it leans more toward the commodity market.”
- “In terms of looking at them and saying, ‘Oh, this is really different from that,’ I think it’s not really true. It’ll come down to past experience or someone else’s recommendation.”
The perception that research brands are largely undifferentiated goes hand-in-hand with the perception that research vendors too often see potential clients as undifferentiated. These clients complained strongly about how many times vendors approach them in an entirely impersonal way, knowing nothing about them or their needs (and yet still promising to solve whatever those needs may be).
- “They don’t even know if I’m sales or marketing or market research. That’s the kind of stuff I get a lot.”
- “I really look for someone who starts out collaborative and wanting to understand more about what it is we’re trying to do.”
- “[Their biggest mistake is] not asking me what I’m looking for first. They start talking about what they do and what they offer without knowing what is on my plate or what’s keeping me up at night first.”
- “The thing that probably happens once every two or three months is I get some boilerplate e-mail with the wrong company’s information in it, or the wrong name, where someone was just moving a little too fast on their computer.”
- “Understand what my needs are a little bit better instead of one size fits all. The target group is all heads or VPs of insights, but we may not all have the same needs.”
Similarly, clients reported strongly feeling that too many vendors don’t treat them as people, but as potential accounts. In short, there was a pervasive sense that too much vendor marketing focuses squarely on solving the needs of the vendor (for more sales), rather than caring at all about actually learning and solving the needs of the client.
- “If on the rare occasion I am able to answer a call or get on the phone with someone, and then I learn that they are only trying to set up an appointment for me with someone else, because they don’t know crap about this industry, that is incredibly frustrating.”
- “It’s very generic. They don’t really mention any specifics, a specific need or a specific project. It’s just very general. You can tell they’re just kind of fishing. In terms of people who are more likely to get my attention or get a proposal, it’s been more of the personal contact.”
- “I am talked to as though my needs are the same as everybody else’s. And it’s all about the vendor and not about me. Get to know me. If you’re in the market research and insights industry, isn’t that your job? Isn’t that what you’re helping us do? So why aren’t you doing it yourself?”
- “Just try to be a normal person. Forget you’re trying to sell me something. Use normal interpersonal skills to keep the relationship open. Don’t come to me and say, ‘What’s the next project for us?’ Treat me as a person as opposed to the next client that they can check off and say, ‘Hey, boss. I just found a new client.’ Just treat me like a person.”
An extension of this problem is when vendors try to circumvent the research department and reach out to other people in the company, or just blanket as many people as they can in the company. This really leaves a bad taste in clients’ mouths.
- “We’ve had a few potential suppliers become non-potential suppliers when they didn’t reach the insights team and they started branching out to every other part of the organization. That only generates more phone calls for me, because people internally will forward stuff or call me, and we don’t want a lot of research going on outside the insights team. And here a company is trying to sell just that.”
- “It does not do a research company any good to blanket our corporate e-mail system with cold e-mails! I have just been forwarded two emails that are exactly the same – one went to someone in our R&D department, and one in Marketing. In our organization, people will forward those to me, and then I get to chuckle at the duplicated ‘personal touch.’ It tends to give me a feeling of the kind of attention my project might get.”
There were also complaints about vendors that promise to do everything. Particularly for a group of clients for whom most vendor brand differentiation revolved around what services are actually offered, specializing in everything usually creates the impression that the vendor really specializes in nothing.
- “Pick a niche and just become known as a specialist or an expert in a particular industry or market segment or methodology. I guess those might be the three ways you could differentiate yourself.”
- “[The most overdone message] for me it’s that they’ll do anything and everything, it’ll be a top-quality job, and they haven’t asked me what kind of work I might need. Every vendor has their strengths and weaknesses. Overpromising without even knowing what I might ask them to do means that they haven’t listened.”
- “I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘This is Dan from XYZ Company. We’re a full-service market research supplier.’ Everyone is a full-service market research supplier. And that’s the premium message that is brought to the table? It just makes no sense.”
- “I think there are some who like to think they’re differentiated, but then talking to them it turns out that they do everything. You’re not really differentiating yourself if you do everything.”
These clients also largely dismissed vendor advertising as bland, undifferentiated, and ineffective.
- “I don’t think much of it. In maybe ten years of looking at Quirk’s and other ones, I can remember one ad that I really liked.”
- “It’s generally not very good. What that means is that it’s really hard to stand out.”
- “It’s not very effective. They all usually have a picture of a person that’s either the company president or supposed to be like a respondent’ that kind of thing. So I’d say they’re pretty undifferentiated.”
The balance between vendors managing to keep their name in front of potential clients and becoming an annoyance is delicate. These clients acknowledged that unless a vendor stays in their view, they’ll forget about that vendor, so they recommended persistence. At the same time, they didn’t want to be constantly bothered. A substantial distinction between “staying in touch” and “annoying me” is whether even a modicum of a relationship exists. If the client has even a slight personal connection to the vendor, “staying in touch” can actually mean “staying in touch.” If the client is being treated as the next number the vendor is calling, “staying in touch” can quickly fall over the edge into “annoying me.”
- “If I have a relationship with them or I know them, of course I’m going to respond to them.”
- “They’re relentless, particularly if you’ve had some contact with them. It’s like, “What else can we do? What other projects do you have? What’s the next project?” I’m like, ‘I’ll contact you when I have another project.’ And I can say that half a dozen times and they’ll keep coming, keep coming, keep coming.”
- “I would say persistence helps, like if there are follow-up phone calls or follow-up e-mails. Sometimes that counts for something. I guess maybe after the third or fourth contact I’ve decided to talk to the person.”
In terms of contacting potential clients with something of value rather than just a sales call, content marketing also has value for these clients.
- “Send me a little something every once in a while with an interesting article you’ve read or an interesting white paper you’ve written. Send me a story like that that sticks in my mind or gives me something to remember you by.”
- “[Content marketing] gives them a lot of credibility. It gives me a sense of expertise, particularly when I’m thinking about whitepapers. I like blog posts because that shows me they’re active in the dialogue of what’s happening out there.”
- “The next best thing [to conferences] would be if they publish things in industry publications. If they’re sort of out there as experts, then that sticks with me as well.”
In short, these clients roundly criticized many of the attempts at vendor sales, marketing, and branding as undifferentiated, impersonal, and focused on what the vendor is selling rather than on what the client may need. Some mass marketing messages might get through, but primarily when fortune dictates that the message comes at a time when they just happen to need that service. The personal touch is critical, certainly through high-visibility activities such as participating in industry functions, presenting at conferences, or being part of the social media conversation, but also through the simple act of treating the potential client as a human being rather than the next potential sale. In an industry of relationships, clients want to buy from and work with people rather than just companies.