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The Idiocy of Market Research

by Doug Davidoff | Sep 2, 2009 12:38:56 PM

market-research-sucksI had a meeting yesterday with a prospect. The prospect made it clear that he didn’t think an effective go-to-market strategy could be developed without first going through a very in-depth assessment/validation process that involved numerous conversations and analysis with customers, potential customers and people who have turned them down.

Sure, maybe 20 years ago, focus groups, customer interviews, and traditional research provided insights that could bring a company real value. That value, however, has been on an accelerating downturn since then, and today, it can actually hurt the company doing the research because it creates an illusion of certainty.

Think about it. The world has changed fundamentally. Business is down, no one knows when or how the growth will return, and buyers are required to do more and more with less and less. So, what does this company (and BTW, I don’t mean to pick on this company as their desire is highly representational of business in general) want to do? They want to ask their customers what they want, why they buy or don’t buy, and what would they need to do to get these customers to buy (or buy more) from their company.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Can you imagine the selection bias that would exist in that research? Remember, research is only as good as the data and those contributing the data that is used to create it. Who’s going to spend the time (even 5 minutes) to answer questions such as these? I don’t know about you, or your customers; but mine are so busy that they can’t get to the things that are important to them, let alone stuff that is important to me.

Yesterday, it may have been worth it for buyers to spend the time answering questions like these. They both had the benefit of more time on their hands and providing that type of information could lead to better offerings and service. Today, however, if a current provider isn’t creating adequate value there are an unlimited number of alternatives that are only too happy to innovate and take your business.

The First Unbreakable Rule For Creating Demand is Know and understand your customers better than they know and understand themselves. If you find yourself saying you need to hire someone to interview your customers, it’s a pretty good bet that you don’t know your customers well enough.  All hiring someone else to “interview” will do is give you the illusion of knowing your customer better, while actually moving your further away from truly understanding them.

Here’s what you get when YOU seek to understand your customers: intimacy, deep relationship and an invaluable education. Understanding is an iterative process. It requires leadership. Leadership means, well, leading. It involves risk because, a) there is no certainty you are right and b) you'll make mistakes.  If you want to create demand (and enjoy the higher margins and growth that creating demand provides), it’s your job to figure out what your customer’s want.

If all you’re asking them is what they want, all you're getting is what they know – and what they know isn’t enough to get them the results they want (if it were, wouldn’t they already be getting those results?).  You'll gain absolutely no advantage with these answers; and likely you'll focus your resources on those areas that created value yesterday and are unlikely to create value tomorrow.

If someone else is asking the questions for you, all you’re getting is the interpretation of what a researcher (who has no true vested interest in creating market leadership in your space) hears. All the things that aren’t heard – or said – are lost. So, with research in hand, you’re still at step one to really understanding. Don’t get me wrong, the report can be great to provide “justification” to an internal board – but it has no impact on actually succeeding in the market any faster.

Gaining a true understanding of your customers on your own is hard work and it takes a long time.  It sounds so much easier and faster to just hire an “expert” to interview them – but it’s not; it’s just the opposite. So, if something is hard work and takes a long time – when’s the best time to get started?