There seems to me to be something about market researchers that means we are forever fretting about the “big-stuff” impacting our business: big trends in market research methodology, the value of out-sourcing or the desirability of expanding into new geographies. (I have to confess to having been doing a bit of this myself lately, and if you are interested in my view on major trends here’s a link to my article with Duncan Stuart in May’s Research Magazine) .
All good things to think about of course, and successful research companies will be constantly evaluating the impact of such issues. However, this shouldn’t blind us to the fact that ours is a business involving a lot of detail, and if you take your eye off the everyday processes that impact your business you will inevitably sacrifice quality and margin.
The Gordon & McCallum experience is that most MR businesses make less money than they should and could often achieve considerably better results with a bit of focus on making “tweaks” to everyday business and research practices. In this post I’m going to suggest 5 “tweaks” to our everyday work that could improve the performance of most research firms.
A review of any established research unit will usually turn up quite a few possible business tweaks, each offering potential for productivity and profit improvements. These range from the basic and specific (an issue with chart presentation, or inefficient use of multivariate analysis technique for example) to larger gaps in the research process (need for a change of software systems, or poorly designed sampling frameworks). The reasons why these issues are not already being tackled are similarly varied running from the historical (“that’s how we’ve always done it”), through lack of resource or time (“I know we are weak on that, but we haven’t got time to deal with it this year”), or even to it being the client’s fault (“Client X insists that we do it that way”). Sometimes the excuses for inaction are perfectly valid, but too often they are a matter of institutional inertia or a lack of access to new inputs or ideas.
Of the many possible business tweaks, I’d like to suggest 5 that should be on the agenda of most MR Managers. These are what I’d call “mid-size” issues – big enough to make a real difference and requiring on-going monitoring, but not the kinds of “big leaps” and total re-engineering efforts that seem to be more often discussed. They are, though, issues I think most Market Research companies should be taking much more seriously.
1. Train your staff how to take a decent brief. Then ensure that brief is integrated into the rest of the research process. Our experience is that most companies and most mid/senior researchers think they do this well and have good systems in place. The reality is frighteningly different and even when the actual brief is adequate the link between brief and questionnaire, analysis and outputs is often tenuous and accidental. Improving this area is harder and takes more thought than most imagine, yet dividends in terms of better, more cost-efficient research and improved client satisfaction are huge.
2. Tackle questionnaire design and length. Intimately related to briefing, this is an area much talked about but seldom tackled with the seriousness it deserves. It goes well beyond simple “101” level training or lecturing people to keep questionnaires short. Improving this means looking at the all the root causes of poor questionnaires: design and review processes, software, client servicing and training and then building an overall improvement plan. Yes, this is hard, but a huge chunk of MR costs, and an even larger proportion of our quality rides on getting this right.
3. Record and analyse chargeable hours properly. In MR companies this varies from non-existent to excellent, with unfortunately the mode being well towards the left on that scale. This is extraordinary in an industry whose main assets are the employees’ brains. Again, this is more than simply having time sheets, it’s about recording the right details, getting the necessary accuracy and most importantly how well managers can access and use the data to build the business. Often fixing this requires a big culture shift, but making the collection and use of this kind of information an embedded and basic part of the company’s everyday operations is a big step in improving company performance.
4. Have a proper sales plan. A sales plan, if it is at all worthwhile, is not a set of wild goals and unrealistic general targets. Neither is it just about “new” sales. It’s a way you decide what clients you want to get more work from (and also which you should decide to drop!) and it’s where you allocate specific responsibilities, time-lines and actions to increase the probability that you’ll actually gain the sales. Because MR companies tend to have a wide range of client types, service offerings and sectors that they operate in, and because much of the industry is still based around ad hoc projects, creating sales plans requires detailed thought and clear systems. They are, however, worth the effort.
5. Actively review final deliverables for the “Aha” factor, not just accuracy or completeness. Step one is to ensure there is some form of review process institutionalised, not merely to ensure quality and consistency, but also to make sure everyone gets exposed to different ideas and inputs. But beyond that, if you want to get closer to delivering some real added value and not merely information, then you need at least periodic reviews that examine issues of cleverness and narrative. Does the information contain something fresh? How well does it answer the client’s number one issue? Is there a story there or just a set of unrelated facts? What you are looking for will depend on what kind of outputs you deliver (infographics, ad hoc reports, syndicated studies etc.), but building benchmarks and best practice in these areas is vital to long term success.
Now I know some of you will be reading this and thinking “but that’s just basic MR practice”, or “we do all that quite well already”. But my point is that these five elements of basic MR business practice are in fact areas where core quality and efficiency are defined, and they require serious and systematic attention. They can always be improved and companies that focus on doing do so will have a competitive advantage.
Clearly I could have picked on a number of other possible “tweaks” and equally clearly it can take a fair bit of work, thought and expertise (from inside or outside the company) to make these things happen. But the nice thing about these five is that unlike some other business re-engineering efforts these are not “all or nothing” projects, nor do they imply huge amounts of work that is peripheral to the main business of Market Research. These tweaks are about actively seeking out improvements in things we should be doing anyway – your clients (and your company bottom-line) will notice improvements quickly.
The problem is that these basic issues get lost between the strategic/corporate plans and everyday client servicing and fire-fighting. We kind of know they need attention, but feel they are not yet urgent. My view is that dealing with these issues is actually worth serious amounts of management time and energy and should be prioritised. Creating a plan and mobilising resources to attack the above issues systematically will yield significant, relatively fast dividends, for most MR companies in most countries. Not bad for just five tweaks to existing processes!