Recently, we decided to put our money where our mouth is – rather than interviewing our clients' prospects and customers and then pontificating about all the wonderful things they should do to improve their business performance based on what we learned, we decided to talk to our OWN clients to figure out what they need most from us. I like to think we do this on a regular basis (and we do), but this time we approached it with heightened rigor and objectivity and covered a wide range of topics including both challenges and opportunities facing today's client-side researchers.
In total, we spoke with approximately 20 companies we currently do business with across a variety of industries including technology, telecommunications, retail, financial services, employee benefits, pharmaceutical, medical devices, lottery, social media, publishing, as well as charitable organizations. It's tempting to articulate a laundry list of all the things we learned and/or confirmed (and we'll get to these in future blogs), but I want to focus on one particularly important question we posed to each of the clients we spoke with – how would you describe the role the market research organization plays in your organization today, and what do you aspire your role to be in the future?
The answer to that question, in summary, is that nearly all want to be in the Advising stage but are much more likely to place themselves in the Informing stage (on most occasions). In the Informing stage, research organizations execute research and generate insights that support specific business decisions but they have not yet reached a place where they are consistently regarded as a trusted consultant and advisor to the business – one that is not only the de facto voice of the market (or customer), but is also able to integrate perspectives from a number of data points and make sense of them. This Advising stage is the aspiration for most of the researchers we spoke with, but they have not yet fully realized that objective.
So how does a researcher, and the broader research organization they work in, move into the Advising stage and stay there? Here are some tips based on these same client interviews, KS&R's own observations of our clients, as well as our own experiences on the client side where many (including myself) have spent a good portion of our careers:
- Invest real time in your own client's business – researchers who spend significant time understanding their client's business, objectives, opportunities and challenges (irrespective of a particular study), establish significant credibility with their clients that translates into increased trust and impact.
- Be the data expert – understanding the business is critical, but as a researcher, you also have to have a much deeper understanding of where the data came from, how it was collected, why it's a credible source to base decisions off of, and what its limitations are. This is table stakes – you may not reach the Advising stage if this is all you're doing, but you'll never get started if you're not at least doing this.
- Integrate multiple data points with confidence and candor – worry less about different sources of information lining up perfectly to tell a consistent story – sometimes it happens and that's great, but sometimes it doesn't! Spend more time clearly explaining what these multiple perspectives are saying and how your end clients should think about and interpret potentially divergent views. They'll respect you for looking at an issue from multiple perspectives and not over-committing to a particular opinion until they are each considered on their own merits.
- Explain what the data means clearly and concisely and in the context of the business issue at hand – it takes time and sound judgment to interpret information well; it takes even more time to concisely explain that interpretation in such a way that is readily understood and inspires confidence in a particular decision. Take the time needed so these interpretations and the recommendations they garner are fact-based, based on sound reasoning, and communicated with clarity and conviction. Data dumps, with no business context or point-of-view are a quick way to erode any credibility you have with your internal clients.
- Be there when your clients need you most – sounds obvious and easy but that's not always the case. When I worked as a client-side researcher at a large, IT company in the early 2000s, one of my primary internal clients was a particular senior marketing executive who didn't get "warmed up" until 10pm on most nights. That's when he had time to dig into some of the research we were sharing with him so I either interacted with him then or I missed an opportunity to make a real impact. Looking back, some of the defining moments in our relationship came late at night when he had time to get into the "meaty" issues – the ones that ultimately make a real difference.
- Present study results yourself, don't leave it up to the vendor – at KS&R we love presenting research findings but if you've done everything mentioned above, there is no reason we (the vendor) should have center stage. You know your own client's business, you're the data expert, you've thoughtfully brought in multiple points-of-view and taken pains to present the information clearly and concisely. You don't need us stealing your mojo at the end. Take it the final step and you've taken another stride towards "trusted advisor" status.
Interestingly, clients that we work with that have reached the Advising stage are some of our most challenging. They demand a lot of themselves and the research function they are part of and therefore demand a lot of us as well. We love the challenge – the gratification of making a real impact in their business is where the real reward is in all we do.