By Rick Kendall
In a recent GB Blog post I wrote about how market research agencies were told at the recent Insights Marketing Day about the importance of finding their own company’s “Secret Sauce” in order to build their own unique brand in, what many perceive to be, an increasingly commoditized business. Briefly, I suggested that a good way to do that was to talk about work one had already done in a way that potential clients would find it useful and informative. (While protecting current clients’ proprietary interests, of course.)
I have just finished reading the latest GRIT Report, and realize that my advice to talk about one’s work is only part of the recipe for developing one’s “Secret Sauce”. The true “secret ingredient”, I believe, based on the GRIT report and my experience on the client side is active listening. It is an ingredient that is, ironically enough, too often left out of the mix. (We are, after all supposed to be professional listeners, aren’t we)
While I caught hints of this early on in the GRIT Report, where it really hit me was in the “Hacking Market Research” section, where clients and suppliers were ask to identify the one BIG issue that the research industry is currently facing and suggest what to do about it. The report collapses the three most common themes under the heading “Making Our Work Count”. To me, the core of the problem is reflected in many of the suggested solutions:
“Our ability to understand and sell our true value to the world outside of market research”
“Making an impact on business decisions”
“Getting at the business problem – not just the research problem”
“No real thought put into analysis”
“Charts are not the same as insight”
“Traditional quant/qual fails to deliver really deep insights”
“Need to move away from cost-efficiency based commoditized service”
The main suggestion, however, was that researchers need to become more business-focused and consultative in their approach.
The report goes on to say that “We need to be more consultative” may be a decades-old cliché in the research industry but that it may be increasing in urgency. One in ten participants referred directly to the lack of consultation:
“We need to steal a few plays from the consultancy industry”
“We need a more consultative approach”
“We need to act and think more like consultants”
Yet, when asked how they self-identified as research professionals, two thirds of respondents (67%) said “Consultant” and 42% said “Big Issue Thinker” (respondents could pick up to 3 from a list of 7). There seems to be a disconnect here!
Why? I think the reason is that, while we want to be treated like a “consultant”, (i.e., we want our results and recommendations to be seen as critical business insights to be valued and acted upon by senior management) we don’t behave like consultants. That is, we fail to develop a deep understanding of the client’s business before we even make our first sales call – and then deepen that understanding through detailed questioning of the immediate client and, hopefully, their management and internal clients.
In short, we tend to stop with an understanding of the research questions they want to ask, but we fail to develop a clear grasp of the business questions our results are meant to address. A question that seldom gets asked is, “What are the business decisions that will be made based on this research and how will the results affect that decision-making?” In my experience, this kind of questioning will often lead to a totally different study – and, occasionally, no study at all because the business decision would be essentially the same no matter what the study results were!
A major source of the problem stems from the fact that, as much as we aspire to be consultants, at our core, we are methodologists – and, as they say, “When all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail”. When we are presented with a request for research, we immediately attack it as methodologists – “Qual or quant?” “Panel or random sample?” “Phone or online?” “What’s your budget, time frame, etc?”
We are not stepping back and first asking the “consultant” questions about the broader business context that gave rise to the research question. But wait a minute! Aren’t we trained, experienced question askers, in-depth probers, professional seekers of underlying dynamics? Why can’t we apply our own tools to understanding the needs of our own customers?
The short answer is, “We can”. It’s just that, all too often, we don’t. We accept their top-of-mind response about what research they need and go from there. In brief, we don’t listen as true researchers. We don’t ask follow up questions – those probes that would lead us to a deeper understanding of what the client really needs and how we can make the results most useful to them and their management.
All too often, our results don’t get taken seriously because, at the end of the day, they didn’t really address the true business issues at the core of the research. The new GRIT report has a number of revealing client and supplier quotes that reflect this issue (and I encourage you to read them all), but two sum it up nicely for me:
“Clients briefing research companies about a specific question not the big picture!”
“Research companies not smart enough to see or think about the big picture!”
My perspective is that, whether an internal department or outside supplier, market research is a service profession, and if we don’t get enough information from the client to address the “big picture” – it is our fault. If our results and analysis don’t address the “big picture” – again, it is our fault. We clearly weren’t actively listening hard enough – and we are paid to be listeners!
Those of us who work on, and develop our “strategic listening skills” will develop an effective “Secret Sauce” – consistently providing valuable, usable insights that address the relevant “big picture” business issues of our clients. Those of us who don’t – won’t and will be seen as less and less useful or relevant.