Flashback to 2005 – MRA leaders identified a gap in the marketing research industry; there didn’t appear to be a “place” that engaged and supported the “corporate researcher”. MRA reached out to corporate researchers (buyers of research, per se) and invited them to attend their Annual Conference.

This specialized group would participate in closed roundtable discussions and explore the conference and expo.

About a dozen corporate researchers attended, and I was one of them. It was easy to see that, despite being from different companies and industries, we all experienced similar issues inside our respective companies and in our interactions with marketing research providers. The roundtable discussions gave me the feeling I wasn’t alone; that I have kindred spirits who share many of the same challenges….who I had only to connect with.

Flash forward six years – MRA launched their first Corporate Researchers Conference (CRC) – a full event focused on education and networking for corporate researchers with around 200 in attendance. With a successful second annual CRC now under their belts, MRA has already begun building a strong corporate researcher member network and support resources. At the recent CRC in Dallas, we connected with each other and with research providers. We learned about issues facing the industry, like respondent privacy and mobile research technologies. We learned tidbits about how we are utilizing technology-enabled resources like social media and big data. Again, we felt those common chains that bind us – our love of research and the challenges in an evolving industry.

What makes corporate researchers unique? We are both client and provider. We are employees of the companies that manufacture and sell the products and services we evaluate. Yet, we are also skilled researchers, who often make up a department that is essentially an embedded marketing research provider. Some corporate researchers partner with full-service research providers; some are full-service providers who partner with data collectors. Either way, corporate researchers are middle-men, translating internal client needs into research designs and managing data collection projects which result in information to drive business decisions. We embrace and balance both worlds. Research providers are tools of our trade and we must share and understand the challenges they face. Internal clients look to us to gather consumer data to guide marketing and product development efforts. We are quintessential problem-solvers for our clients and for our suppliers. However, we also have our own unique problems and they seem to be universal among corporate researchers:

  • How do you get and keep a seat at the table with your internal clients?
  • How do you build and maintain strong research provider relationships?

While these two problems will continue to evolve with the constantly changing global economy and technology, our team has applied some simple psychology and problem-solving techniques to make measurable headway!

Problem-solving has been an integral part of manufacturing dating back to the Arsenal in Venice in the 1450’s. Henry Ford introduced assembly lines in the early 1900’s, the advent of the auto industry, using specialized equipment and streamlined processes. Ford was able to build one chassis in one color – great for process efficiency, but quickly the customers wanted more variety.

In the 1930s and just after World War II, Toyota revisited Ford’s ideas and over the next 30 years evolved the Toyota Production System. By 1975, it shifted the engineering focus from individual machine utilization to product flow through the entire process. Toyota was able to obtain low cost, high variety, high quality, and very rapid throughput times to respond to changing customer desires. Toyota’s thought process and best practices are the foundation of lean thinking, which has transformed many manufacturing operations. Over the past several years, lean thinking is spreading around the world and being adapted beyond manufacturing to logistics and distribution, services, retail, healthcare, construction, maintenance, and even government. 1

You’re probably thinking, “How does this manufacturing concept relate to marketing research?” or maybe, “Sure, when you have a hammer, everything around you becomes a nail!2” Marketing research has no tangible products; we have only thinking, communication and transactional processes.

Lean thinking applied to these types of processes is a balance of structured process optimization, problem solving and creativity. I liken it to Hegel’s dialectic triad: thesis, antithesis, synthesis – the ongoing struggle between actual and potential worlds.3 Understanding the current state (thesis); describing the desired ideal state (antithesis), and developing hypotheses and countermeasures to move toward the ideal state (synthesis) is a simple description of the problem-solving cycle.

Let’s take the idea of having a seat at the table with internal clients:

  • Current State: Internal clients view you as a service provider. They place orders with you, fully describing the testing they want you to do and then want you to just give them the analysis or data to interpret by themselves. When you make suggestions or ask for more information about the project, they view you as an obstacle slowing their project’s progress.
  • Ideal State: Internal clients seek your input on how to address questions in their projects; not only how to best gather data and measure progress, but also how to apply the learning. You work together as partners to design and interpret research. You participate in decision-making meetings, suggest future course of action and feel respected for your knowledge and contributions.
  • After a lot of problem solving and experiments with countermeasures, we found success by implementing these practices:
    • Know and demonstrate the science of your craft – statistics basics, theory and assumptions, sampling, scaling. Proactively explore data anomalies. Check and adjust testing methods as you gain experience with them. When a client makes an unreasonable request, defend the fundamental science and psychology in this art of gathering consumer perception. It is not easy to make unpopular decisions, but averting bad data usually will win respect.
    • Know the customers who use your products and services – learn about their demographics and behavior every chance you get. Understand characteristics of your loyal customers and of your competitors’ customers.
    • Know at least the basics of the distribution chain and what’s important to those between you and your actual consumer. Tap that knowledge in every study design to assure you are asking the right people the right questions in the right way. If you are asking the wrong people, nothing else matters. Remember the New Coke fiasco?
    • Understand what drives your internal clients – know the products and services you support. Our internal clients love to tell us about their projects and why they are important. They welcome us on manufacturing trials and happily explain the manufacturing process and materials of construction. They share what features they are changing and the effect those changes might make in product performance and perception. They explain what consumer behaviors they are trying to adapt or evolve. They are under pressure to deliver results and manage lots of other aspects of their projects and sometimes want a safe place to vent. By taking the time to express genuine personal interest in our clients’ projects, we not only learn about the business, projects and decisions, but also build trusting and respectful relationships with our clients. The natural next step in the relationship is that clients look to us as partners in designing studies to answer their project questions and in interpreting the study results.
    • Set standards and standard processes for logistics. Building and maintaining client partnerships consumes enormous amounts of time and energy. But the primary benefit of our role as translator and middle-man is to gather reliable actionable information to make good business decisions. We achieve that benefit by thinking with our clients. That means minimizing our investment in the comfortable role of project management. Our team established a standard study design process that starts with an interview of the client to learn why they want to work with us on a study, how they intend to use the results, what they want to learn and how they define and measure success. Then we partner with them and apply our expertise to design a study that best addresses their needs. That open discussion at the start usually prevents scope creep and rework down the road. From that point forward we have standard review checkpoints to assure study relevance and quality, along with standard document templates, formatted question library, and best practices to provide speed, yet flexibility, in assembling what we need to execute the study. This also created a standard process that allows us to easily flow to work and back up each other as needed.

Building a relationship with internal clients is one thing, but in order to be able to provide the research they need, we also have to work at building and maintaining strong research provider relationships. Surprisingly (or maybe not), the successful countermeasures are remarkably similar.

Think about building and maintaining strong research provider relationships:

  • Current State: You receive study bids and give projects to the lowest bidder. You have minimal communication with the research providers beyond the bid and purchase order, yet get a report on the due date describing the study method and results. You trust, but do not know, that the research provider followed industry practices and professional standards.
  • Ideal State: You have trusted research partners, with whom you work together to design, execute and maybe even interpret research, depending on your corporate researcher role. You freely engage in dialogue on topics such as recruiting challenges or questionnaire design or how to improve the end-to-end testing process. As partners, you are in tune to each other’s processes and informed or involved when there are issues and updates.
  • After a lot of problem solving and experiments with countermeasures, we found success by implementing these practices:
    • Understand what drives your research providers – have clearly defined project scope, roles and expectations. Learn about their special skills and how they like to be involved in projects. Know the different ways in which they recruit respondents and gather the information you seek. Understand the benefits and risks with each recruiting mode for the research provider, to the respondents, and most definitely to you, the client. Know the current industry legal and regulatory issues related to respondent privacy, consent, and contractor status. Keep current on emerging industry issues – while they may not directly affect your effectiveness, they surely increase the research provider’s costs and resource utilization. Be aware of the industry data quality issues, such as professional respondents and on-line recruiting aggregators, as these could have detrimental effects on your results. Discuss the issues with your research providers and come to agreement on practices, expectations and implications.
    • Clearly describe the respondents you need and what they need to do – understand the incidence of the sample you request. Sense and communicate how easy or difficult you expect the recruit to be. Provide suggestions for finding people who meet your recruiting criteria. Use internal resources, like marketing and sales, as a guide. Give heads up to the research provider so they can proactively build database for specific needs. Learn which screening questions are causing the most pain. Prepare to negotiate if need be. State all of your recruiting criteria and study procedures up front. Seemingly small inferred details and assumptions can render an otherwise perfect study useless.
    • Consider how your study design practices affect the study execution – take a look at the “man in the mirror”. Sometimes we create our own problems through our practices and expectations. Are your surveys too long? Are they confusing? Do your studies require respondents to do a lot of atypical activities or expend a lot of effort? Do you experience high drop-out rates, non-compliance or signs of respondent fatigue? Identify and enforce internal standards on limits in usage periods or survey lengths. Ask for input from the research providers and even conduct research on research to define and refine your practices.

Generally, in both of these types of professional relationships, it is important to 1) show respect to your partners by expressing interest in learning what’s important to them (usually they in turn will show respect to you), 2) problem-solve together with your partners since each of you have unique expectations and frames of reference, and 3) monitor process performance and check and adjust as you identify opportunities to adapt to improve quality or efficiency. By utilizing lean thinking, and essentially structured and focused problem-solving, we have been able to look beyond superficial causes of these tough problems and effectively address the deeper, more meaningful root causes.

It’s a long and winding road, this path to the ideal state. We’ve made progress on our journey, but will always have farther to go. As the MRA corporate researcher network and resources grow, I look forward to learning about similar practices and further refining our path. While we all have intellectual assets to protect and competitive advantage to preserve, sharing experiences in areas we have in common – technical expertise, research processes, and passion for the industry – is extremely rewarding and enriching. Thank you, MRA, for becoming a resource where corporate researchers can be actively engaged and supported in both sides of our role in the middle.

References:

1 http://www.lean.org/WhatsLean/History.cfm

http://www.lean.org/Bookstore/ProductDetails.cfm?SelectedProductID=160 The thought process of lean was thoroughly described in the book The Machine That Changed the World (1990) by James P. Womack, Daniel Roos, and Daniel T. Jones. In a subsequent volume, Lean Thinking (1996). Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc., 215 First Street, Suite 300, Cambridge, MA 02142

2 http://stories-straight.blogspot.com/2008/12/hegel-thesis-antithesis-synthesis.html

3 http://books.google.com/books?id=OYe6fsXSP3IC&pg=PA28&dq=%22law+of+the+instrument%22+inauthor:kaplan. The first recorded statement of the concept was Abraham Kaplan’s, in 1964: “I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”2

2 ^ Abraham Kaplan (1964). The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co. p. 28.