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What’s the Problem?

April 11, 2012

Daniel Attivissimo this week looks at the defining steps that will make or break a market research project.

What do a doctor, automotive mechanic, and market research professional all have in common? Their ability to provide conclusions and information on solutions relies on the mastery of one fundamental step – defining the nature of the problem.

Peter Drucker, influential management consultant, once stated, “The truly serious mistakes are made not as a result of wrong answers but because of asking the wrong questions.” This simple and almost elementary observation outlines one of the leading causes behind many marketing research project failures.

To put this theory into everyday terms, I’ll use a relatable personal experience as an example. Recently, I had the pleasure of breaking down on the highway which led to my car being worked on for the better part of a week. The symptoms were obvious, the car wasn’t running at all, but the underlying problem was not as apparent. Working with only the symptoms would not have been enough information for the mechanic to properly address and fix the problem. It was necessary to dig a little deeper into the underlying causes behind the problem before deciding what the best method of fixing the car would be.

Sounds pretty understandable, right…..?

Well, the marketing research process is very similar to the example I just gave, in which the process is integrated and iterative – meaning, that no step is independent and the results of the previous steps affect the design and outcome of the following steps. That is why the most important step of all is the first step, defining the problem at hand – not just describing the symptoms (i.e. declining market share, decreasing profit margin, etc.). It sets the course for everything else in the research design, from the objectives and methodology to the questionnaire design all the way through to the presentation of the results to the client.

By definition, our responsibility as marketing researchers is to provide our client (typically some form of management) with information that aids in decision making. One of the most disastrous outcomes of a marketing research project would be reaching the end of the project only to find out that the information obtained holds little to no relevance in addressing the true nature of the business issue. The waste of time and money would be likened to the mechanic returning your car only to find yourself broken down a few miles down the road – but at least you have that new oil filter and full supply of windshield wiper fluid.

To effectively accomplish the task of identifying the problem (or opportunity), we must first gather all pertinent information to fully understand the background of the business issue. Three useful steps would be:

  • Understanding the environmental context of the problem and determining the underlying causes behind the symptoms
  • Distinguishing the management decision problem (action-oriented) from the marketing research problem (information-oriented)
  • Developing an approach to the problem that will ultimately lead to the research design

Below, is a comparison of the example of a mechanic and a general business issue that many companies face:

Figure 1: Identifying The Problem To Design The Research

Identifying The Problem To Design The Research
please click on the image to enlarge

In the end, because of the mechanic’s ability to effectively define the problem causing my car to not run, he was able to provide me with a cost effective solution.

In the same way, the research team at B2B International is expert at providing its clients with actionable insights because of an acute attention to fully defining the background to the business issue, translating it into a research problem, and designing an appropriate approach that will effectively provide our clients with information that addresses the problem.

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