Don’t Trust Your Salesforce: That’s not Marketing Research
For small companies the idea of conducting marketing research is laughable. They barely have the resources to market at all! Still, owners and managers want to understand the market and customers. Conducting primary research, whether interviews, a focus group, or even an online survey, is too expensive or takes too much time and effort away from day-to-day operations. Secondary research is available, as simple as a web search, to understand trends in the marketplace, but this research never seems to be specific enough to be actionable.
This predicament often means going to the next best source for insight into the marketplace and customers: the salesforce! It seems logical, the sole purpose of the salesforce is to learn about, engage, and serve the needs of the marketplace. Shouldn’t they understand what customers and prospects are thinking? What matters to the market? And where the market trends are headed?
Good Information; Grain of Salt
Talking to the salesforce isn’t marketing research. Basically, there are two reasons for this: self interest and limited focus.
Self interest is one of the great pillars that the free market stands upon. Salespeople with a strong self interest are a driving force for the good and right exchange of products and services in the marketplace. Salespeople “know” the market, and it could be assumed that a salesperson is a great source of market information. They are, but the information is biased. Salespeople hone their self interest so well that they can really only see the market through their particular lens.
That’s the perfect situation for sales. You want your sales team to always see the market as lots of opportunity for them to sell. The information they provide will be biased towards what they can sell. And what they see is what they can sell right now. This information could be helpful in strategic planning or provide insight for product development, but it doesn’t serve as marketing research.
A wise friend of mine once used this axiom: “When you have a hammer, every problem is a nail.” Salespeople often live by this idea. I am selling chocolate cake, so chocolate cake is the answer to every eating need! (Yes, that is a hyperbolic statement… but at least it is a tasty one.)
Salespeople are focused on the here and now. Translate: the current prospect/selling opportunity in front of them. Some may have ideas about product development that consider the wider market and longer lifecycles. Listen to these ideas. Here’s the cavaet: salespeople often lobby for a different type of hammer. As in: If I had some cupcakes, I could make more sales. The chocolate cake is too limiting (fill in reason/sales objection of choice here). “We need something else because I’m not selling enough of what we have”… is not marketing research.
Listen Wider and Longer: Continual Marketing Research
Small businesses can conduct effective marketing research. It requires a longer and wider view. No single survey, focus group, discussion with a salesperson or lunch with a customer, will produce the desired information. However, all of these can.
What if marketing research was a continual process? Small (all) businesses can be fooled by the tyranny of the urgent: we need something new, now! Step back and take time when considering new products, services or how to better engage with the marketplace. Here’s a small business marketing research playbook. Do these things as often and as repeatedly as you can:
- Talk to customers whenever you can. Ask about their business, their market, and where they think it is moving.
- Listen to suppliers. While they, like the salesforce, have self interest when it comes to product development, they provide additional eyes and ears to the wider marketplace.
- Meet with salespeople in a group forum solely for the discussion of the marketplace. Ask them questions that move them past their immediate sales needs. “Where do you see this company in five years?” “Where do you see the market in the same timeframe?” “How do we meet the long term needs of the market?”
- Do secondary research: read, google, watch. Find out what experts are thinking. Read internationally – with the internet you can read about trends in Europe, Asia, anywhere.
- Do primary research: consider an online survey of customers once per year. There are free and inexpensive tools for building a survey. Before you use them, write your goals for the survey and top three questions… don’t let the monkey in the survey template decide what your questions should ask. Or, if you hold a customer golf outing or company open house, have a smaller side event by invitation – a short customer focus group discussion about future market trends, needs in the marketplace, etc.
- Think. Take time to consider your own thoughts. Pray about it, meditate on it, think about it when you’re biking or have a long drive. You know your business. You probably have a pretty good sense of the market. Take time to think about it intentionally.
- Get help. We have a great way to make marketing research a prospecting tool. Genius! Marketing can also help you develop your surveys or conduct secondary research.
Contact us to learn more or to ask a question about marketing research or other topics.