Market research is easy! Not!!!

Paul Hague this week lets off steam about people who assume that working in the market research profession is a piece of cake.

We have been enjoying some balmy summer days recently and one pleasant evening I shocked my wife by coming home early and cutting the lawn.  As I was trimming the edges at the front, my neighbour from across the road called by.  “Hello Paul” he said, “I haven’t seen you for a while but I thought I would just catch up. Have you got a minute?”  Now I don’t know this person particularly well and I was pleased to make his acquaintance.  However, the purpose of his approach soon became apparent.  It turns out that my new friendly neighbour was a supply teacher who has found himself out of work.  He was dropping by to enquire if he could help me in my work.  For one wonderful minute I thought that I was to be given a lift with the backbreaking task of lawn trimming, but it turned out that my NFN was aware that I ran a market research company and was eager to offer his services.

I am pleased to say that over the last 12 months we have been holding our own as a market research company, though I would be kidding if I was to tell you that these were the best years since our inception.  Indeed, we have a recruitment freeze until the green shoots thicken.  So it was relatively easy for me to explain that I was extremely grateful for the offer of help but, sadly, I could not take it up.

Later that evening, as I sipped my beer and reflected on my neighbour’s request, I became more and more astounded and even annoyed.  It occurs to me that the task of the market researcher is little known outside of the industry.  In a way, this is not surprising.  I know very little about neurosurgery or car mechanics.  However, almost everybody thinks they are an expert on market research – after all, it is surely only a matter of asking a few silly questions, isn’t it?  And, hasn’t everybody done market research in some form or another?  You must have done an assignment at school to check out shopping habits in your local township, or if you are the secretary of the tennis club, you will inevitably have run a quick survey to check if people are happy with the puce coloured carpet you fancy.  Market research is simply about asking a few questions, getting some answers, and making some sense of it.  Would my new friendly neighbour have offered his help if I was a lawyer or an architect?  To him, market research is dead easy – anyone can do it, and he was free and available should his help be needed.

Some years ago I attended a Market Research Society conference where one of the luminaries on the stage made a statement which astounded me then and has lived with me ever since – he said he thought that market research was easy and he was amazed that he was paid so much for doing the job!  Am I the only person around here that believes that market research is a proper job, a tough job, and not one that anyone can walk straight into off the street?

At one level market research is simple.  It can help you understand how many people do what and how often.  However, the real art of market research is finding out something that no one else knows and using this to your advantage – and that is a bit more difficult.
A friend of mine who holds a senior position in human resources visited me recently.  She had with her a pack of playing cards on which were written different value statements – honesty, hard work, pleasant environment, good relationships, etc.  My task was to look through the deck of cards and choose five value statements that are really important to me.  I then had to say which single card was the deal-breaker – the most important value statement in my life.  I went through the assignment and chose my five cards including my deal-breaker.  My friend was astonished and told me that it must be wrong; she had me down as some sort of control freak (in a nice kind of way) and this hadn’t been exposed by any of my choices.

I won’t embarrass myself by telling you which cards I chose; I would rather ask you to think whether such a technique can explore and identify the real me, indeed the real anybody, in just a couple of minutes.  The point is that the things that you value are often things that you haven’t got.  And when you have got something, you move on and change your values.  This means that exploring people’s motivations and their needs and values is a moving feast.  We can do it, but it isn’t easy and it isn’t obvious.  It can’t necessarily be answered in two minutes with a pack of cards.

There are two important things in the world that we don’t fully understand – the universe and the workings of the brain.  It is the latter that we researchers are particularly interested in.  Why did you choose a certain supplier?  What would cause you to switch?  How satisfied are you?  What do you need that you’re not currently getting?  We know answers to some of these questions.  We know some answers in considerable detail.  But finding out answers to all of the questions in lots of detail is extremely difficult.  Finding out something that no one else knows about your business or market is not easy.  Anyone who says it is must surely be kidding themselves or be a supply teacher looking for work.

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