OPINION10 April 2014

Time to practice what we preach?


The research industry needs to get better at listening to its own customers, argues Dan Young of Shed Research Consulting.


As an industry, we prosper because other industries want to listen to what their customers think. Yet, market research has never been very good at listening to its own customers: its clients.

In the 2013 AURA (Association of Users of Research Agencies) survey, its members were asked to name the number one issue faced by client-side researchers today. At a presentation to a room of research suppliers, Richard Drury, chair of AURA, asked the audience what they thought this issue could be.

The guesses included cost pressures, finding the right agency and embracing new research methods.

In fact, it was none of those things. The number one concern among clients is having impact with the insight they produce. Using insight to actually make a difference to an organisation. The insight is there. The challenge is knowing how to make it stick. How to affect change.

“Our members are really clear on their priorities,” says Drury. “The number one issue is creating impact in their organisations, helping people to make better decisions. We hear this time and again and need research partners who can understand business strategy and have a commercial approach.”

This thinking seems to be gaining more exposure, but it still comes as a surprise to many in the industry. So why is there this misalignment between what the users and suppliers of research think is important? I think it’s simple. The market research industry doesn’t listen to its own customers.

I’m always struck by how few agencies have any developed ways of understanding their customers. Some have the odd round table discussion. Some send out yearly customer satisfaction surveys. But few ever spend a huge amount of time asking their clients what they really need and what their main concerns are.

I can’t even begin to solve these issues here. But what I can do is provide some insight into the client world that I hope will help the industry get at least a little bit closer to its customers. From the numerous in-depth interviews I’ve conducted with clients over the past few years, some universal truths emerge:

1. Clients want agencies to focus on outcomes

Many agencies trumpet the latest method. Big data, mobile and bite-sized Google surveys being the latest. All these are interesting but they are only a means of gathering insight. The reason for gathering it in the first place is to help organisations be better at meeting their customers’ needs, and so it follows, the needs of their shareholders, when the subsequent profit rolls in. But in an environment where this insight is not being acted upon, it is really any use at all? Even if it has been drawn from the latest research method?

“I’m always struck by how few agencies have any developed ways of understanding their customers”

2. Clients want insight with impact

Insight is no good on its own. It needs communicating well, at the right time, to the right people. To do this well requires real skill. Most people think they are good communicators but so few are. Agencies need to be thinking of new ways to get their message across. It’s no secret that the PowerPoint debrief is overused. It has its place but is often used lazily as the default and with little attention to its audience. Producing impactful presentations, infographics, audio-visual output and other take-aways all require thought and care. Pulling together a punchy ten minute presentation takes time, but if it means the client has the other 50 minutes of the meeting to discuss what their stakeholders should do with the insight, isn’t that time well spent?

3. Customer communities have huge potential, if used properly

The bulk of the work generated by customer insight teams is product development, ad-testing and communication testing. This is its bread and butter. And all of these are perfectly suited to online customer communities. They’re expensive to set up but the economies of scale and speed of response make them the must-have method for the next few years. As one head of insight at a major retailer said to me: “Those not using them will adopt them and those using them will use them more”.

But focusing on the method alone is not enough. Having an online customer community is not the same as getting maximum value from it. The power to get near-instant feedback from customers is something that should be getting attention from boardrooms around the world. Yet too often, communities are the preserve of single team members in marketing departments. Imagine the situation where a CEO, the night before presenting the company’s financial results to City analysts, is able to get instant customer feedback on his or her latest initiative. Market research would be finally influencing the C-suite agenda it aspires to.

After all my time in the industry, I’m still staggered at how little effort agencies and research suppliers put into getting feedback from their own customers: their clients. Market research’s relevance is under threat from so many angles. To stay ahead of these challenges, it’s time for the industry to practice what it preaches. It’s time to start listening to our own customers.

Dan Young is founder of Shed Research Consulting. AURA, a networking community for UK clientside research and insight professionals, is online at www.aura.org.uk.


10 years ago

It has always struck me as strange that market research agencies don't get this. If you hire an accountant you don't want them to spend ages telling you how they put your balance sheet and profit and loss account together - you just want to know what it means in terms of how your business is doing and what it needs to do next. An accountant, by definition, should be an accounts expert - you may ask him to explain anything that looks a bit suspect, but by and large you trust him to know how to practice his craft skills. It's the same principle for research practitioners. When a client company commissions some research, they have already chosen an agency they believe to be competent. The agency's craft research skills are a given. So the client isn't as interested in all the ins and outs of how the research was carried out - they want to see the output and understand what the implications are for the business in the context of the internal and external environments. Of course the quality of the research is still highly important, but a well designed and executed piece of research is of no value if it doesn't lead to action.

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10 years ago

Wow! I couldn't agree more. I have received more than my share of research reports that are confusingly dense with data. It seems that vendors feel that more slides = more data.

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10 years ago

As a market research fieldwork vendor, the failure to understand their market research's customers is glaring as there are many occasions, initial insights that we gather are not further explore to provide better understanding and weights of each insights discovered. This is especially the case where the prepared survey paper are prepared without full grasp of the underlying factors that might not be obvious, what more the market research customers themselves do not realized. Feel, it will add more value if pilot fieldwork is done to get an initial feedback and more accurate perspective the types of information that the customers need to assist them to execute a more strategic policies to maximize the value of the research findings.

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10 years ago

I agree totally with numbers 1 and 2; but suddenly talking about one particular method at 3 feels a bit random. As ever researchers cant resist methods!!

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10 years ago

As much as I want to agree with the above two comments, I just cant, completely. The accountant comparison is not very valid, given that the research method can and will hugely impact the results you get and influence the conclusions you come to. If we are using comparisons, I can look at the stats of a football match, it says the result is 0-0, that there were not many shots on target, few passes completed - but why was that? Was it because the players are just poor players, or was it because both teams selected players that are very defensive but very good at what they do? Same outcome, different samples. OK, not the best analogy but you see my point. Researchers, generally, know that they have to deliver insight and actionable results - I don't think the points in the article are (or even meant to be) something new or need reporting. What challenges do research agencies have? Mixed messages from clients, more often than not they do not know what they want until after the debrief and they realize they didn't ask or get it. Mixed audiences within debriefs, the wider the skill set of the client in the room, the wider the insights have to reach to affect all concerned. Budget and time restrictions that will impact quality of deliverable just like any other product or service out there. You know what I think would make a difference, let the researcher into your business, I don't mean sending a deck of info on your latest product, but let them come in, live your brand in your office and understand what the delivery needs to be. At the moment we communicate in standardised briefs and word docs with the occasional 'kick off call' - it has to be more than that?

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10 years ago

Hello. And thanks for all the comments. I'm glad the article has started some debate. Accountancy may not be directly comparable but I take your point, Andrea. Clients want to trust the professionals, not get bogged down in the detail. Anonymous (I wish I had a name) - I completely agree that clients have to shoulder some of the burden here. I was once told by a very wise colleague that to get the best out of any consultant you need to let them into your business, tell them everything you know. Only then can they really add something. But do many agencies ask to be let in? I'm not sure they do.

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