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Business problems, research enquiry and more questions!

By: Greg Walton, Senior Project Manager MMResearch™


Why is it that for some, market research, when it culminates and reaches the client's hands, the findings raise more questions than those it sought to address?

For a market research agency (or an advertising or PR company), doesn't it feel good when a client says, "tell me what I should do?" or, "tell me which hill I should be on top of." You know, "these are my problems, provide me a brief for research telling me what information I really need to know, how you'll go about getting it, cost it and timetable it." We could not have a better client. They are effectively licensing us to be creative in research design and execution - to be lateral in assisting the client to solve its marketing/business problems (or exploit a market opportunity).

This type of client is more often than not these days, happening to MMResearch™. Moreover, we like this. And it's always refreshing to conduct 'real' market research. That is, research beyond (brand) monitoring, 'single point in time' attitudinal or just getting data without interpreting them. We thrive on turning data and research results into meaningful managerial implications knowing what decisions are contingent on this interpretation and new discovery. Let me describe this phenomenon more and illustrate it by describing some comprehensive attitudinal market research we've completed for a couple of large private sector clients in May 2008.

Both firms are in business-to-business consumer durable markets and had different problems. One firm supplies more of a commodity and a component to a finished system. There are many other suppliers of similar products little distinguished from one another. The battle for this firm probably could not be fought on product distinction or on price alone.

Many B-to-B firms employ 'broad, macro, objective and generic' criteria to segment their markets and service these. This is common. This research was about identifying needs of the broad target audience and seeing if some segments had specific requirements. The data collection phases clearly determined one or two segments were not going to participate. We did not anticipate this and neither did the client!

The results revealed huge gaps in client's knowledge of these important customer groups. Our research design work incorporated the discussion and application of an industrial segmentation model. The results of our data collection phases (a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods) informed our recommendations - a new approach to market segmentation was required to understand the complex dynamics occurring within these important but reluctant segments. The way these groups manifested their supply relationships and needs were clearly different to other groups. A market segmentation criterion more in tune with 'specificity, subtlety and subjectivity' was required. This is consistent with relationship building at multiple levels within complex buying centres of large firms. To us, this is contemporary market research and marketing, and for our clients the outcomes inform the development of their customer management system.

The other firm markets a branded range of consumer durables. The market may be characterised by being fast growing (sales), few major players and gaining market share has been easy. It's easy for a firm in a growing market to be complacent and be sales or production oriented. What happens when the market shows signs of maturity and the indicators of market maturity begin to reveal the gap between marginal revenue closes with marginal investment and current practices become inadequate to build future competitiveness? Does this mark a change towards becoming more customer or market driven? Shouldn't a firm be market oriented anyway? The answer to this question doesn't matter for now. Nevertheless, we applauded our client's vision to be exploring questions of 'positioning in the market' and 'increasing competitiveness' now, even before a maturing market began to affect it.

There were different audiences to research for this firm. It was fascinating learning about the attitudes, beliefs and influencing factors on a customer's purchase decision and to understand the motivations and prevailing beliefs inherent in the distribution (channel) system that influenced the sale process. As you can imagine, the richness of the findings came together at the denouement of the story. No, the 'butler didn't do it', but we did discover who did! The obvious outcome of the work was to recommend renewed emphasis on the complementary elements that make up the firm's marketing mix.

As with much private sector client work in competitive markets, an outcome of the research for these clients necessarily, is to better understand current market positioning. Understanding the relativities of a firm's competitors and products and prevailing attitudes about these too, is immensely interesting work.

What many market research firms aspire to, is to 'add value' to research results. For MMResearch™ this means interpreting and explaining the findings in terms of managerial implications. For clients like this it means we need to understand the wider context of the research. That is, to clearly know what decisions are contingent on the research. This also means the market research company probably needs to be a marketer themselves, first, then, market researchers! How can it be different? The capability needed from within a market research firm needs the market research firm to be more than just empathetic with its client. It needs to be as if it is a part of the client's decision. This is what we could describe it has been like for us anyway.

Getting back to the research findings raising more questions. It's not just about what questions should be asked (see Andrew Robertson 'Baking Good Banana Cake: Attitudinal Questions in Quantitative Research'). We need to go back a step. What 'information' is required to make managerial decisions that, in turn designs the research instrument? Because this is the reason to conduct market research in the first place. It's not even a matter of determining method yet. That comes next and obviously is another element in the research's design but not a subject for this commentary.

I don't want to discuss process here either. But one of these clients mentioned above wanted to know "which hill should I be on?" For us this is what marketing is all about. The research we do may not conclusively determine which hill to be on. But clients should expect results to point roughly which one if this is agreed we should discover. In addition, if it determines that its hill is different from its major competitors' hill, then this too is a worthy finding.

Markets are dynamic. Competitors come and go, launch new products, others become obsolete, government regulation restricts movements, cost competitiveness changes, markets grow, mature and decline. The hills we help our clients determine they 'could' be sitting on are future hills. These hills should be viewed according to some determination of their future value. Ultimately, it is the client who makes this decision informed by our interpretation of the findings and our explanation of the implications. Results, findings and their interpretation may conceivably raise more questions. But isn't this healthy and simply a reflection of the complex environments firms operate in? Decisions are too often made with incomplete market information.

Market research is also about mitigating risk. Risk of not discovering something that in competitive environments may significantly impact on the effectiveness of decisions taken. All of us can cite examples of decisions made with appalling and costly consequences and we ask, "why didn't they find this out. It would have been so easy."

Here at MMResearch™ we take comfort in the knowledge that for these two clients, we have been able to add value and surety in their decision making, even though it poses new questions too. We remain partners in their future decision-making! This is great news for us.

June 2008.

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