Editor’s Note: I often take telecommuting for granted. I started occasionally telecommuting in 1997 when I was a Regional Manager for a financial services company, but since 2002 I have worked exclusively from a home office. During that time I have built 6 companies (all virtual), hired over 50 employees, worked with literally hundreds of clients, and amassed a global network of many thousands of colleagues. All from my home, and only rarely actually meeting people face-to-face. I have been blessed to convert some of those colleagues to dear friends, and in some cases we have never physically met. It’s pretty amazing, and I forget that for many people this style of work is a foreign concept.
That is why I was thrilled when Kevin Gray sent me this post. I believe that technology will only continue to make telecommuting easier and more effective and will eventually become the norm for just about anyone who works in a professional service industry. That being the case, some basic tips, tricks, and wisdom are in order and this is a fantastic primer for anyone, but especially for those who work in the insights field.
So kick back in your bathrobe and enjoy!
By Kevin Gray
When I established my consultancy in 2008, I chose to keep my operation to minimal size – hopefully, too small to fail – and to work from my home office. Besides keeping overhead down, my main motivations for flying completely solo were to maximize efficiency and minimize hassle so I’d be able to concentrate on the things I like to do most and think I do best. I am my company’s sole employee and my business partners include a few end clients but are mostly marketing research agencies scattered throughout the world. Only part of my business is local and face-to-face.
People were working from home long before “telecommuting” was coined by Jack Nilles in 1973, so I cannot call myself a pioneer. However, most of us physically commute to offices, as I did for the bulk of my career, and some may find the very idea working remote from home hard to grasp. There are plusses and minuses to anything, to be sure, and before I made the leap I sought the advice of contacts who had worked this way at some point in their careers, some in marketing research and others in unrelated fields. Self-discipline and the need to structure one’s workday were mentioned by several as crucial, as was being able to work autonomously without becoming a hermit. It’s not for everyone.
I should stress that this would not have been a realistic option if I hadn’t already been an experienced marketing researcher when I set up my company. Before I set out on my own I’d worked for Nielsen’s Customized division, Kantar (Research International) and McCann’s Marplan division for more than 15 years, in addition to having been on the client side early in my career. At Nielsen and Kantar, in particular, a significant component of my responsibilities was international and I’d worked with colleagues and clients located in dozens of countries for many years. When one is establishing a consultancy I think it’s quite normal to work through existing contacts, at least initially, and therefore not working remote was not really an option for me at the time.
How can you work as a consultant without regularly meeting with your clients face-to-face? With the right experience and know-how, it is actually more efficient that way. Though there are times when face-to-face meetings are truly essential, over the years in my role as a marketing science consultant and statistician, I have found that these are rare exceptions. In fact, taking part in meetings too early in the process in some instances can cause the conversation to stray towards technical details before the basic issues have been sorted out.
At this phase in my career if I must be physically present explaining methodological details to a client, it usually means I haven’t done my job well enough, to be honest. Of course, I do join meetings or presentations remotely – sometimes at odd hours and sometimes with the assistance of an interpreter – and now and then meet with clients face-to-face as well. However, considering the cost and downtime that comes with travel, hopping on a plane at a moment’s notice for a two-hour meeting is usually not sensible, at least for what I do. Phone, Skype and email are all I need, even when involved from the early stages, as I typically am.
Do your homework. Whatever your specialization within marketing research and regardless of your own working arrangement, if you will not be the user of the research I would urge you to do your homework in another sense. Marketing researchers are researchers and part of our job is to unearth important business questions and help clarify the objectives of the research. I do a lot of on-the-job coaching about how to tackle this with business associates who are new to our profession and, even when working with veterans, I often ask lots and lots of questions. Put simply, we need to find out what the end client really needs, which may be very different from what they say they want. As a former client, I know this all too well!
When designing research, it’s important to consider who will be using the results, how the results will be used and when they will be used, and then work backward into the methodology. Though I have read more than one-hundred textbooks on research methods and statistics, I am not preoccupied with methodology (though I will admit to a strong interest in it). Marketing researchers need to be prepared to respond to diverse requests very quickly and to be able to do this requires a large multipurpose toolkit. On the other hand, we shouldn’t let the tools be our boss or sell statistical techniques, in my opinion. Instead, it’s better to concentrate on what you need to do to help your client make decisions more effectively. Though complex solutions sometimes work better, aim for simplicity whenever possible. Avoid jargon but also be wary of oversimplifying…this is like a tightrope walk at times!
Be especially cautious about making assumptions when dealing with a client for the first time. Try to learn about their corporate culture. The client’s website and web searches will tell you a lot about the company and their industry, and also give you hints about what goes on within their walls. That is often the best place to begin and takes little time. Having some sense of corporate culture and marketing research expertise comes in handy because these things can have a big impact on how your proposal is received. Suggesting an innovative solution to a conservative organization in which marketing research isn’t well-established or is viewed skeptically can backfire; to paraphrase Voltaire, the “best” may be the enemy of the good enough. In some situations it may be appropriate to propose more than one option, for example, a basic option and an advanced option with different costs.
Learn about market trends in the client’s category and, more fundamentally, how the client defines the market and competition in the first place and why. Within any organization there can be strong tendencies towards groupthink and on some brand teams almost a religious fervor that can blind them to facts and issues that are truly important. Habits are hard to break…but that doesn’t make them good habits! Develop hypotheses, even rough ones, to help clarify your thinking when designing research. These can be formally tested against the evidence when data become available.
Long before the recent clamor about “big data” clients have been incorporating internal company data, such as customer transactions, and external data, such as economic trends, into their decision making. It is very helpful to learn what data your client is using now to make decisions. Also consider what other information they might have on hand or would be able to acquire that would enhance the research. When appropriate, ask them directly. And, even if you’re a hard core quant, don’t write off qualitative approaches. Qual can help bring numbers to life and your client may have past reports they’d be happy to share.
Think ahead. Multivariate analysis is generally more useful when planned in advance and designed into the research and, with methods such as conjoint, this is imperative. Once again, though, for most projects it’s best to avoid selling statistical methods and a good idea to keep several options in mind when designing research since the data you obtain may not behave as you’d expected.
It’s important that marketing researchers do their homework, and even more so when they are working from home because communication can break down more easily under that arrangement. In my experience, you have to be more proactive and more cautious about making assumptions if you’re telecommuting. Either way, though, given today’s understandable fascination with information technology, we all must sometimes remind ourselves that marketing research is more than math and programming. The human side is a great deal bigger and we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the decision-makers who will be using our research and in their customers’ shoes. This means doing a lot of homework, wherever you’re doing it from.