Just a few years ago I was involved in a study looking at trends facing client-side market researchers across Canada.

54% of client-side researchers told us they were being asked to “do more with less”. They feared further budget cuts and downsizing. And they were frustrated with the support that “market research” was getting from executives and others in their organization. Today, the situation hasn’t improved, and marketers and market researchers are under more pressure than ever to show value.

It’s the challenge that every market researcher faces. How do you produce real insight from market research? Read: how do you “go beyond the data”? Read: how do you show value?

Go beyond the obvious. Produce insight. Show value. 3 ways of saying the same thing.This “thing” is the job of every market researcher.

The value of market research departments – and market research projects – is heavily scrutinized today. The 3 questions that executives and other stakeholders ask about market research are these: “Was it worth it?” “Did it tell us anything we didn’t already know?” and “Does it help our business?

The single most important question that we market researchers should be asking is: “How are we getting past the obvious?” Our success, budgets, and future depend on how well we answer this question. If we’re not asking this all the time, we’ve missed something.

The single most important question that we market researchers should be asking is: “How are we getting past the obvious?”

So how do you do it? How do you get “beyond the obvious”? I wish I knew the entire answer. What I do know is it has very little to do with statistics and data analytics, although these can help… sometimes.

Practically speaking, getting beyond the obvious has more to do with:

  • looking for ways to shift your perspective on your question or problem,
  • using analogies and translations for your questions and problems,
  • bringing new and different audiences to help us with our questions,
  • starting with hunches,
  • injecting research with as much relevant collaboration as you can.

But there’s something more fundamental than this. I’m a big believer that getting past the obvious has a lot to do with the attitude, intrigue and enthusiasm we bring to every project. It has everything to do with curiosity.

 I’m a big believer that getting past the obvious has a lot to do with the attitude, intrigue and enthusiasm we bring to every project. It has everything to do with curiosity.

Here is a short story I want to share. Take it as a practical example of a little bit of effort to see beyond the obvious. Or just take it as an interesting story…

A few years ago I had a chance to sit down with the new CEO of a fairly large organization. I had overseen a research project that he was interested in and he gave me an hour to share the results with him in his boardroom. Here is how the conversation started.

CEO: “You have me for an hour! This was interesting stuff. Why don’t I just let you start?”

Derek: “Well, you’ve seen the report and I can tell you what you need to know in 5 minutes. So can I use the time to ask you some questions instead?”

CEO: “Shoot.”

Derek: “You’ve run large organizations before, and I know you’ve seen lots of market research. I’m sure you’ve been in many meetings where someone’s tried to impress you with some fancy market research, and I’m sure you thought some of it was good and some of it was not so good.”

CEO: “Well I’ve seen some.”

Derek: “Tell me what crap looks like.”

CEO: [He laughed] “Nobody’s ever asked me that before. But I like the question. [He pauses]. The first thing that comes to mind is eye contact. I think that you can do a lot of your surveys and ask customers if their experience with our representatives was good and if they were understanding and if they were greeted on time. But I think one of the keys to a great customer experience is eye contact, and I’m not sure how I’d learn that from one of your surveys. I’m not saying don’t do the surveys, but…”

What he was saying was that although it’s important to not ignore the obvious, he was looking for something beyond it. The next day I went to my boss and told him briefly about my meeting with the CEO and that I needed some budget for a new research project I had in mind. I explained the project. He said yes. We hired the most creative and curious market research partner we knew. We identified our top 10 customer representatives using research we already had. For each representative, our research partner spent a day observing how they engaged with customers, talking to their co-workers and manager, talking to customers that had engaged with them that day, and talking to the representative him or herself. We wanted to know if they had a “magic recipe” and if so, what was it? I can’t share what we discovered, but we learned a lot of less than obvious things that representatives can do, and behaviors that they can demonstrate to deliver a memorable experience. It was gold.

Three months after that initial meeting with the CEO, I booked a meeting with him and I showed up with the report in hand. I told him what we did, what we learned and what we found out about eye contact… and lots of other stuff:

Derek: “Remember the conversation we had a few months ago… and you told me about… eye contact…?”

CEO: “Yes. I’m surprised you do. [He laughed] Sometimes I talk and I’m not sure who’s listening!”

Derek: “Well here’s what we did…”

CEO: “Well I’ll be.”

He talked about that report with his executives, and personally saw that it got widely read and distributed. Rumour has it that he or one of the other executives at the company carried that report around for months… That report was talked about… and used… for 3 years.

But my story isn’t about the research we did. Looking back we probably could have done it differently… and better. It’s about what can happen when you try to look at problems and issues through new lenses, ask about them differently, and engage new audiences along the way.

That’s how I tried to get beyond the obvious by asking my CEO what crap looks like.

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