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What Sort Of Skill Set Do Researchers Need To Be Considered “Consultants”?

Wherever we are in the Market Research chain, I'd say that we all need to ponder which consulting skills we need to acquire, and how to best to put a plan in place to up our skill set accordingly.


By Edward Appleton

I read an interesting post yesterday evening by Tim McCutcheon from Market Probe here on the GreenBook Blog focusing on the role of Researchers. It stressed the need for MR to move from an “engage and inform” mode to one that shapes and drives business decisions, driving business growth.

The words “needs to” occurred repeatedly – highlighting a goal, something to aim for.

It didn’t address a critical question: if we aspire to being business partners, what consultancy skills do MR folk need in future?

Here’s my take from a Client-side perspective:

1. Insights are ultimately about Strategy. We need to think strategically – meaning spelling out implications and recommendations, highlighting opportunities, going so far as to how we think we might best go after them. Can we anticipate an end-game? What might play out? How could we best position ourselves in various scenarios?

2. Insights = Actionability. Nothing new there – but the skill set challenge is cogent. We need to be Action-specialists: delivering concrete, call-to-actions. If one path is a no-go, what is an alternative path forward? What’s our hypothesis? These are the sort of questions Business Decision Makers face day-in, day-out.

3. Insights specialists need to acquire Salesmanship skills. Can we tell a story? Engage an audience? Find a way of sparking off something in our audience that is inspiring? We need to bounce off the boring image, our toolkit is exciting enough.

4. Insights needs to be bold. Whatever our personal style, and whatever the contextual and organizational ramifications, we need to embrace our mandate to challenge. Senior management is often looking for Strategic Directional input, not just tactical recommendations.

5. Insights needs to be nimble, flexible, pro-active. Problem solving is an extremely valuable skill set, but anticipating challenges, suggesting ways forward that haven’t necessarily been considered reflects an understanding of the rapidly changing contexts and landscapes that many businesses face.

6. We should learn to become as comfortable using the word “should” as we are with  the word “could”. Advocacy isn’t about ambivalence – it’s about fact-based belief sets. The phrase “don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness” is one that Marketing folk often repeat – we should take it to heart, and use it in our own way.

7. Insights should be business-passionate. We should love our businesses and the products as much as the insights. Passion infects. It needn’t blur our vision.

I’m sure there’s more – love to hear what your views are on skill sets, what would you include in a list?

If the above sounds like a plea for Research to be something out of an Anthony Robbins book, then maybe think this: how often have you been truly excited by Market Research? Probably quite often. Have you conveyed that excitement?

Wherever we are in the MR chain, I’d say that we all need to ponder which consulting skills we need to acquire, and how to best to put a plan in place to up our skill set accordingly.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Originally posted on Research & Reflect

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16 responses to “What Sort Of Skill Set Do Researchers Need To Be Considered “Consultants”?

  1. As always, Edward, well-written and well thought-out. I’m motivated, I’m inspired, I’m…wait – was this a description of what marketing researchers need to be? The assumption in much of this is that the researcher (a) has a detalied knowledge of the business, (b) has a detailed knowledge of the available options at any decision point in the business strategy, (c) the business actually has a strategy, and (d) the researcher is a marketing expert. That’s a lot to place on a researcher, who, IMHO needs to be a research expert first. From the supplier side, it’s probably rare that these conditions hold, although I get lucky sometimes with some clients who are very open. But I shouldn’t be the expert on the business, my clients should. It’s unlikely I would know all of the ins and outs of their business model and the opportunities available to them. And while I’m good at marketing, my expertise is in translating research into action, not marketing per se.

  2. Ed, just finished responding to you on

    I’m not sure we can reach further into research bag of tricks to convince CXOs that we’re business partners. Making insights more bold, actionable and strategic is helpful if that helps clients to

    –scope and prioritize market opportunities
    –ideate and design new products, services and experiences
    –engage and align stakeholders throughout the process
    –build organizational alignment–based on a deep understanding of the customer
    –improve the customer experience
    In our experience, there’s more mileage to be gained by acquiring these skills and realizing synergies between them:

    -Customer experience research (not focused exclusively on marketing)
    -Business process
    -CX creation and product design
    -Change management
    -Implementation planning

    Jason M. Sherman

  3. @jason – thanks for your comments. To me the list of areas you list as aspirational for MR would be frankly more than a big ask in my experience. They are potentially nebulous (eg implementation planning), and certainly more in the realm of management consultancies. Many of them are areas where I would very much doubt that MR should even look to compete – eg business process. Which client would look to a MR company for BP re-engeering? Or change management for that matter?Play to your strengths is actually fine for MR to a point – but make sure we build on and add relevant skill sets to make your core abilities come to life, was sort of the thinking lurking in my article.

  4. @steve – I agree, there’s a danger of blurring of boundaries – but that’s happening in any case in my opinion, and being slow to put yourself forward isn’t a good attitude in a context that is fluid. Yes, for Suppliers, it is difficult as you are one stage removed from aspects that are often only accessible to internal Client Side researchers. However, I would say if the main mandate you mention – translating insights into Action – is to be given some power, some real punch, then it needs to take into account some of the skill sets I highlighted. Otherwise there’s a danger of it remaining a phrase on a page. However, don’t get me wrong – I think MR should build on its core strengths, and then take another step towards the Action.

  5. I was a consultant before I was a researcher. In my experience, my consulting clients wanted only enough data to support the advice / recommendations being offered. They assumed that we had done the necessary research. My research clients want every painful detailed data point to draw those conclusions for themselves. It is a difference in trust and professional intimacy. The consultant uses research to understand and improve the business, while a researcher uses a business to understand the data.

    They are very different projects. Consultants don’t rely solely on research when developing their recommendations; they also develop a holistic perspective on an industry and the client’s position within.

  6. Steve Needel (first, Hi! It’s been a while… good to “see” you here), I think you are right on that list – and I include a, b, and d in building and developing my team of manufacturer side “researchers.” (Which to be fair, is what Edward said he where he was coming from.) I also think you are right Steve, I DO want my supplier side researcher to be a research expert first, with some abiilty to translate it to business meaning.

    Taken together with both Edward and Steve being right on, I think its time we all embrace that there are a few overlapping but then a completely different set of core skills between the research provider world and the corporate researcher.

    p.s. I put corporate “researcher” in quotes because I think it’s an antiquated label, an unlikely to survive much longer frame of reference. Jason Anderson is right on the mark with his comments too. What was once the corporate “researcher” MUST evolve to be the strategy and execution consultant – which bases much (but not all) of their work on the full toolkit of insight and analytics tools that make this broader industry.

  7. Ed, in response, why would a CEO consider a researcher a valued consultant if the researcher can’t help executives decide anything…other than what customers’ wish lists are?
    Don’t you think CEOs would place far greater value on a research deliverables that integrate customers’ wish lists with insights about…
    – which products are most profitable?
    – what business processes exist today?
    – what processes should change to address customer’s wish lists?
    – estimates of the magnitude, associated risks and costs of any changes?
    This is what they’re discussing at “the table”.

  8. Some very on-point comments here – and thank you, Edward, for starting off the conversation! At Cambiar, we teach a course called “From Researcher to Consultant”. Here are just a few of the principles that we believe distinguish between the two roles:
    – a consultant is a partner, not a supplier
    – in order to be a consultant, the researcher must change his or her mindset from INFORM to CHANGE
    – a consultant creates value in an organization
    – consultants work collaboratively, not as lone project managers
    – a consultant will work proactively, often creating IP in the organization that is relevant to a key strategic issue
    – a consultant knows how to tell the story to the C-Suite.
    There are many other aspects of differentiation, but these give a flavor. Above all, traveling the road from researcher to consultant involves a change of mindset. Call it the “Paul Syndrome”!

  9. Edward, some very good points. Well-thought out write up.

    Not surprisingly, it’s easy to see that “insights” are multi-dimensional. The ability to analyze market research data is one dimension, but there are others. Researchers have a “seat at the table” because of their expertise analyzing data – filtering the noise, what it can/cannot imply, etc. Now his/her impact at the table, beyond data analysis, varies depending on one’s ability to extrapolate these data into other dimensions related to the business, and communicate with other stakeholders also at the table (Porters’ Diamond presents a good visual on the most salient factors affecting a business)…And to affect mostly by provoking thought by inquiry vs. stating what should/should not be done.

    In my view, this list of attributes will continue to be aspirational unless framed differently. Instead of listing what appears to be desired outcomes, which frankly may be unattainable via circumstance and through no fault of the researcher. As researchers, we should aspire to elevate our role by contributing beyond what is expected to drive that collaborative AHA moment. After all, true “actionable insights” is an iterative process discerned from the contributions of all stakeholders. Actionable insight is like “beauty” – it’s ultimately in the eye of the beholder. With the Beholder usually being the person(s) with P&L responsibility charged with taking action based on the insight.

    With this mind, I would add to your list, “stick-to-itiveness” towards preparation and rigor. To internalize multiple business dimensions by continuously asking the question, “Why would that be…?” beyond what the data suggest. Examples of preparation approaches could be as simple as reading the highlights of a company’s 10K (if publicly-traded), listening to an earnings report/shareholder meeting describing the headwinds facing the business, performing a mental SWOT analysis of the business and its competitors, visualizing “What if” scenarios, etc.

  10. @Jason – whats your take on whether researchers are on the path to the trust and professional intimacy you see as consultancy characteristics?

    @Jennifer – if there is a completely different set of core skiils between client side and agency researchers, isn’t this a serious gap? Shouldn’t we be working to bridge the gaps, creating more overlaps? If Agencies only provide data, then there’s arguably little room for them to add much insight value?

    @Simon – fascinating comments, thanks. Do the courses you mention get attended both by Agency and Clientside researchers equally? I’d be very curious to discover more about your course….google here I come 😉 I agree with many of the points you make, but wonder where an Agency should start – that may be their aspiration, but what if it’s not what they are asked to do? Or are not paid enough to get close enough? Consultancies often have the mandate from Senior Managment, if not the CEO – so have a broader and more authoritative remit.

    @Renato – thanks! Agree with much of what you say. Not sure I quite get your phrase “stick-to-itiveness” – are you referring to the need to be iterative across a broage range of perspectives or stakeholders? My experience is that iterative is fine, but collaborative is often better – you gain new perspectives, and bake them in to a viewpoint that many people have contributed towards. It also allows a consultant to continuously refine and develop on hyptheses he or she has. The answer is often synthetical – developed from a range of diverse views.

  11. @Edward: From the client side of the relationship, it’s been unique with each vendor. Some actively pursue a consulting partnership, while others have been quite content doing what they’ve been doing (you give me your problem statement and I will collect and analyze the data that answers those questions). Another interesting question is whether the current purchasers of research are also on a path to working with their vendors as consultants. Frankly speaking, that’s supposed to be MY job: to be my employer’s internal expert on using research to guide strategy. What’s the incentive for a research buyer to outsource their own most important value-add?

  12. “Should” is indeed commendable as a motivator for change, but it is also dripping with contextual values that may or may not embody equity or democratic principles with which to do business in a shared commons.

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