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It’s time to practice what we preach

As an industry, we prosper because other industries want to listen to what their customers think. Yet, market research has never been very good at listening to its own customers: its clients.

In the 2013 AURA (Association of Users of Research Agencies) survey, its members were asked to name the number one issue faced by client-side researchers today. At a presentation to a room of research suppliers, Richard Drury, chair of AURA, asked the audience what they thought this issue could be.

The guesses included cost pressures, finding the right agency and embracing new research methods.

In fact, it was none of those things.

The number one concern among clients is having impact with the insight they produce. Using insight to actually make a difference to an organisation. The insight is there. The challenge is knowing how to make it stick. How to affect change.

“Our members are really clear on their priorities,” says Drury. “The number one issue is creating impact in their organisations, helping people to make better decisions. We hear this time and again and need research partners who can understand business strategy and have a commercial approach.”

This thinking seems to be gaining more exposure, but it still comes as a surprise to many in the industry. So why is there this misalignment between what the users and suppliers of research think is important? I think it’s simple. The market research industry doesn’t listen to its own customers.

I’m always struck by how few agencies have any developed ways of understanding their customers. Some have the odd round table discussion. Some send out yearly customer satisfaction surveys. But few ever spend a huge amount of time asking their clients what they really need and what their main concerns are.

I can’t even begin to solve these issues here. But what I can do is provide some insight into the client world that I hope will help the industry get at least a little bit closer to its customers. From the numerous in-depth interviews I’ve conducted with clients over the past few years, some universal truths emerge:

1. Clients want agencies to focus on outcomes

Many agencies trumpet the latest method. Big data, mobile and bite-sized Google surveys being the latest. All these are interesting but they are only a means of gathering insight. The reason for gathering it in the first place is to help organisations be better at meeting their customers’ needs, and so it follows, the needs of their shareholders, when the subsequent profit rolls in. But in an environment where this insight is not being acted upon, it is really any use at all? Even if it has been drawn from the latest research method?

I’m always struck by how few agencies have any developed ways of understanding their customers

2. Clients want insight with impact

Insight is no good on its own. It needs communicating well, at the right time, to the right people. To do this well requires real skill. Most people think they are good communicators but so few are. Agencies need to be thinking of new ways to get their message across. It’s no secret that the PowerPoint debrief is overused. It has its place but is often used lazily as the default and with little attention to its audience. Producing impactful presentations, infographics, audio-visual output and other take-aways all require thought and care. Pulling together a punchy ten minute presentation takes time, but if it means the client has the other 50 minutes of the meeting to discuss what their stakeholders should do with the insight, isn’t that time well spent?

3. Customer communities have huge potential, if used properly

The bulk of the work generated by customer insight teams is product development, ad-testing and communication testing. This is its bread and butter. And all of these are perfectly suited to online customer communities. They’re expensive to set up but the economies of scale and speed of response make them the must-have method for the next few years. As one head of insight at a major retailer said to me: “Those not using them will adopt them and those using them will use them more”.

But focusing on the method alone is not enough. Having an online customer community is not the same as getting maximum value from it. The power to get near-instant feedback from customers is something that should be getting attention from boardrooms around the world. Yet too often, communities are the preserve of single team members in marketing departments. Imagine the situation where a CEO, the night before presenting the company’s financial results to City analysts, is able to get instant customer feedback on his or her latest initiative. Market research would be finally influencing the C-suite agenda it aspires to.

After all my time in the industry, I’m still staggered at how little effort agencies and research suppliers put into getting feedback from their own customers: their clients. Market research’s relevance is under threat from so many angles. To stay ahead of these challenges, it’s time for the industry to practice what it preaches. It’s time to start listening to our own customers.

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