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What GRIT Says About Marketing Market Research: Listening: The Secret Sauce Secret

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.


 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.

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5 responses to “What GRIT Says About Marketing Market Research: Listening: The Secret Sauce Secret

  1. Rick, I am honoured and somewhat flattered that my idea about ‘secret sauce’ has inspired you so much! However, the core idea for me about the ‘secret sauce’ within every company is that by identifying it and communicating it, companies would distinguish themselves from other businesses in the same field. So I think it’s about more than being great listeners – although I do totally agree those skills need building in research for the industry to move from commodity to true business consultancy. If every MR agency’s secret sauce was being a great listener and hence making really business focused and effective recommendations, then that’s no differentiator. For me, secret sauce is about a company having a strong belief or philosophy – about consumers, or how brands work, or how to understand hard to reach consumers, or why some customers are more fickle. It could be that a company has a particular process or skill in client handling, listening, or delivering effective insights (although they do all say this). Whatever it is it needs to be special and different. What do you think?

  2. Rick, I can see two explanations for the disconnect here.

    One of them may simply be the speed of the proposal phase. At times there’s not a lot of daylight between receipt of the brief and the return, even in large complex studies. This may be to the detriment of the study, but that’s the way it is.

    The other may relate to the individual in front of the client. Should we be asking clients to lie back on the couch and tell us what they are trying to do while we listen? Or should we, by virtue of our functional or category experience, be able to already understand much of the bigger picture so that we merely need to fill in the blanks with direct, relevant questions. Asking questions might imply that we really don’t get it, or that we’re ponderous in our approach, both of which can be deal breakers.

    Like you, I believe, that we need to be more consultative, but I’m not so sure that the critical gap is that we’re not listening. We need more people who have “walked the walk”, who, by virtue of the credibility of their experience, can step in and have an adult conversation with the client that yields better outcomes.This leads to interesting questions about MR talent for the future.

    My $0.02.
    – JD

  3. Lucy: I am flattered that you are flattered, as I thought your presentation was one of the high-points of the Insights Marketing Day conference and said so in my first post ( My issue then, and now, is that in the execution of identifying their “secret sauce”, too often MR firms come up with the same “sauce”. Not that they don’t truly believe that they “build partnerships with their clients” or “focus on actionable results and meaningful insights”, etc. better than the next firm. It is just that, to your point, everyone says that. I guess where I was going in my posts was, it isn’t enough to SAY how you are different, you have to SHOW how you are different — with the relevant work that you have done (first post) or in how you focus in on the business issues driving the research questions (current post).
    Starbucks just doesn’t SAY they are the “third place”, they ARE the third place — and they work extremely hard to demonstrate that every time you go in. If we get to the point where actually BEING great listeners no longer differentiates among MR firms, the field would be a lot better off! (And you are right, in that case, they would have to find another sauce!) Don’t misunderstand me, all of this is very hard (see below).
    JD: I agree with everything you say. Executing on what I said is not easy. It takes talent (to your point about who is sitting across from the client) and preparation (e.g., knowing the issues in the industry from which the fast turnaround RFP comes). Being a “good listener” starts long before one ever sits across from a potential client. In your words, “. . .already understand much of the bigger picture so that we merely need to fill in the blanks with direct, relevant questions.” And, based on comments from the client panel at the Insights Marketing Day, that still will differentiate you from the pack. I think we are on the same page here.

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