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What Do Business People Really Think About Market Research? A Client-Side Perspective

What's the most frustrating aspect of working as a client-side researcher? Often the attitudes and misconceptions about research among our colleagues can be one of the most frequently occurring issues.


By Neal Cole of Myth buster Blog

What’s the most frustrating aspect of working as a client-side researcher? Some recent posts on Twitter #mrx suggest that research agencies may be the culprit. Well, we all have our bad days. But when  working as a client-side research manager I found the attitudes and misconceptions about research among some of my colleagues to be one of the most frequently occurring issues.

First of all there were the general misconceptions about research:

  1. Market research is just about asking people direct questions.
  2. We should run some focus groups because that’s what we usually do.
  3. You have to follow up qualitative research with a quantitative study.
  4. Why would we want to ask people what they want?
  5. We should give customers what they ask for.
  6. 30 qualitative interviews is too small a sample to get any useful feedback.
  7. Report back to me when you have completed the research (I don’t need to be involved do I?).
  8. I need some research to tell me what to do.

Then there were the various reasons why we should not conduct research:

  1. We haven’t got time to do any research because it takes too long to conduct and we didn’t include it in the project plan.
  2. Research takes too long to complete. You will need to allow me 2 to 3 weeks to approve the budget and a further week to sign-off the questionnaire as I’m very busy.
  3. We don’t need research as we already know what customers’ need, we just can’t deliver it.
  4. Our advertising agency ran a couple of focus groups to test their ideas.
  5. There’s no point doing research because our products are too complex for customer’s to understand.
  6. I don’t need research to tell me how to produce great creative designs.
  7. Research is too expensive and we’d rather spend the money testing different creative ideas.
  8. If we conduct a survey it will raise expectations that we are going to do something about the level of service we offer.
  9. Our research is not helping us make strategic decisions.

And helpful suggestions about how to design or conduct research:

  1. Why can’t we do all our own research using online surveys?
  2. We could get our sales people to ask customer’s what they think of the service they provide?
  3. I’d like to run some focus groups to get feedback on our new idea from consumers.
  4. You should only have 3 or 4 questions in a customer satisfaction survey because that’s all Enterprise Cars ask in their questionnaire (I received this challenge at 2 separate organizations).
  5. Having a “very poor” option in the rating scale is too negative.
  6. We can discuss how we are going to use the research once we have the results back.

Then there were the reasons for doing research:

  1. We need some evidence for the board to support the decision that we’ve already made.
  2. We don’t need to publish the research if we don’t agree with the findings.
  3. We want to quote a reasonably high satisfaction score in our report and accounts.

And it didn’t always go swimmingly when results were presented back:

  1. It was very interesting, but it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.
  2. There shouldn’t be any recommendations in the report as it’s marketing’s role to decide what actions should be taken as a result of the research.
  3. I haven’t got time to attend the presentation, can you email me the findings.
  4. The staff knew it was a mystery shopper and that’s why they didn’t follow the normal sales process.
  5. The mystery shopper probably didn’t understand the explanation that our sales person provided as it’s a complex subject.
  6. The research was paid for from my budget and so I will circulate the findings.

I would point out that some of these comments and perceptions are thankfully not very common. Some are probably a  reflection of the industries I have worked in, financial services and retail. However, even within the same organization I experienced a wide range of reactions and expectations. The comments above also came from a variety of levels of management, so it would be unfair to say it was only junior or inexperienced managers.

Why do these attitudes exist?

There are various reasons for some of these attitudes, including internal politics and a lack of stakeholder engagement, but here are my main suggestions:

  • Not top of their agenda! For many middle and senior managers they may spend little, if any, part of their day getting involved in research projects. When they do get involved there is often little expectation of being engaged in any co-creative process. As a consequence they are not always prepared to commit to the time and energy that some projects require.
  • Illusion of validity. This refers to how as people acquire more knowledge and expertise they have a tendency to develop an enhanced illusion of their skill and become over-confident in their abilities to predict the future. As Kahneman put it, they are “dazzled by their own brilliance and hate to be wrong”. This may be especially problematic in the financial services sector because it is packed full of highly skilled and numerate professionals. The sector’s senior management is dominated by bankers, actuaries, underwriters, and accountants. With hind-sight this culture of over-confidence seems to have been a contributory factor to the 2008 financial crisis. However, forecasting errors are to be expected because the world is unpredictable.
  • Not invented-here bias. People who come up with an idea have a tendency to become attached to it and greatly overvalue the potential importance of the idea. The danger is that they become obsessively attached to their own idea and fail to objectively evaluate ideas from other sources (e.g. from market research). Further, organizations establish cultures focused towards their own beliefs, terminology, processes and products. Dan Ariely asserts that the overuse of acronyms, which is rife in financial services, can facilitate this process by giving the impression there is a source of insider knowledge and they enable people to talk in a form of shorthand.
  •  Research in the media. The image of research in the media is often dominated by opinion polls and ‘surveys’ that latch onto a correlation that may prove to be spurious. This is sometimes the result of poorly designed studies (see The Law Of Small Numbers). But also by the cognitive bias that Kahneman calls What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI). This means that people tend to assume that what is visible is all there is and they will not automatically check to see if there is more than they are aware of. Critics of market research appear particularly prone to this bias as they rarely refer to the many and varied modern research techniques deployed by the industry,
  • Shareholder value versus mission-led businesses. Evidence suggests that Mission-led businesses out perform the market by nine times . This may be because there is a clear focus in the business, including a desire and passion to meet genuine customer needs. By definition management behavior tends to be aligned with the core values of such businesses . Mark Earls asserts that such businesses may benefit from our ‘herd’ instinct as people with similar beliefs and values like to align themselves with organizations that hold the same goals. They also tend to value customer feedback because they appreciate how important it is to retain customer trust in the brand.
  • Brand values are just words. Some companies, including Aviva, one of my past employers, have recognized that being customer centric is not just the responsibility of the research department. Where the company culture encourages all employees to engage with customers and get involved with understanding customer needs there tends to be a more open-minded attitude towards how research can assist them in their day job. However, for this to  work it is essential that such behaviors are driven from the top. Customers look for confirmation that management behave and make decisions in accordance with their core values and beliefs. Otherwise brand values are just words that have no substance. Recent financial mis-selling scandals in the UK have shown how this is sometimes the case.
  • Loss aversion. Just like the rest of us business people dislike losses more than they value gains. This is compounded in businesses that are obsessive about cost cutting and results in too much focus on the cost of research rather than the benefits. As it is often difficult to estimate the return on investment for a research project this can result in many potentially beneficial research projects failing to get support from management in such organizations.
  • Ensuring research projects are followed up and actions, not just results, are communicated: It is essential that any significant research project is followed-up and insights are linked to marketing or business strategy. If this is not visible it can give the impression that research isn’t being used to help drive the business forward.

Thank you for reading my post and I hope it raised awareness of some of the challenges faced by the client-side researcher.

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6 responses to “What Do Business People Really Think About Market Research? A Client-Side Perspective

  1. Hi Neal.

    I really enjoyed your post. I have long felt we need to be thinking about and working with internal mental model as well as of course the external “consumer”. The obvious question is what to do about changing each of the situations when it arises. Maybe also doing a bit of root cause analysis and looking for any patterns in the “type” of person who has these views. Is it due to

    – inexperience
    – ignorance
    – fear
    – politics playing
    – ego
    – misunderstanding
    – something else

    …as depending on which one it is, a different response is needed. I am also left wondering what has happened or been communicated by “MR” in the past to the individual concerned by that has created the behaviour and thinking in the past.

  2. There are as many opinions and experiences about MR as there are clients. And there are of course as many opinions about clients as there are market researchers. It is the interaction that counts and leads to success (or failure if the interaction fails). At TMRE my colleague Juan Tello together with a client and a management consultant presented a paper about the different roles. If everyone understands his/her role and acts accordingly everyone will be highly rewarded. You can find the presentation at

  3. Hi Neal,
    I’m curious how MR client side perceptions and roles are changing today with the emergence of marketing intelligence cloud technology vendors like GoodData, Domo and PivotLink as well as more analytic consulting firms like AbsoluteData and Opera. (Of course, these examples are more on the marketing intelligence side, but they begin to encroach upon the analytics that market research and it’s vendor community has traditionally owned). My hypothesis is that market research is desolving into the broader marketing organization and that client side market researchers will either move upstream into more of a business/marketing analytics role, or downstream into a data collection role. I’m curious if you or other folks have an opinion on these changing roles.
    Best, Tony

  4. Neal, these experiences are not just limited to the industries you have worked in. I have observed these issues in non-profit organizations, branding agencies, automobile manufacturers, sports teams, and many others. Certainly not all colleagues are like this (as you point out), but enough of them are to make your job sometimes very difficult.

    It can also make the life of the vendor very difficult, depending on the power held by the internal researcher. A researcher with the power to say, “No, we’re not doing focus groups just because you think that’s what we need” can fight this; a researcher who does not have such power essentially passes the problems on to the vendor as an order-taker.

    Martin asked which “type” of person is most likely to cause these kinds of problems. In my experience, it’s a combination of ego and ignorance (often willful ignorance). The client with ego thinks she knows better than anyone else; the client who is ignorant does not know enough to be of any value (but often knows enough to get in the way).

    One other element only tangentially on Martin’s list is “willfulness” (I guess you could consider that part of “ego” in some ways, but it’s also somewhat different). It’s the “I don’t care whether it takes two weeks to recruit the focus groups properly – I want it done in three days. Why? Because I WANT IT” approach. Some people are such Type A personalities that they think they can just drive anything through once they decide they want it.

  5. … and therein lies the value of Insight Management. Great post. Just proves how much else there is to our jobs other than generating MR production excellence.

    NB loved also post on Myths and the Law of small numbers. Anyone who has worked client side aligned to a comms department knows only too well the challenge of the poor old Insight manager to reign in their thirst to jump on and publicize all and any ‘evidence’ to suggest positive PR spin

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