Customer InsightsCustomer SurveysMarket Research

Letting Clients Be More Than Research Participants

What makes a useful marketing consultant? I mean, a really useful one?

Someone who…

Understands your product?
Knows how customers actually use it?
Understands customers’ perceptions of its strengths? Weaknesses?
Can see past your own biases?

Hmmm…maybe the most qualified consultant is a customer?

In market research, we are trained to treat customers as research participants. If they start to go off track by pontificating, we “re-direct” them to talk about their own personal experiences and opinions. In focus groups, we have various techniques for making someone stay on point. In survey projects, we carefully word questions in hopes that participants will report their own attitudes and behaviors.

And for many projects, it does make sense to keep participants focused on themselves. After all, a research participant can’t really know why their brother-in-law uses that brand of shampoo, or how her co-worker might feel about the price of air travel.

But if we are looking at some other marketing needs—like seeking input for improving word-of-mouth, or coming up with ideas for product improvements, the best “consultant” is one who really knows your company, your product. Sure, there are some great consultants out there. But sometimes, calling on customers as consultants is the best approach.

Calling on customers as consultants also has a hidden benefit: if your topic of interest is something that people may find too personal, too hard to be honest about—asking them indirectly can be most revealing. Jack may not be willing to tell you bluntly that he thinks your product is hard to use—that might make him feel stupid. But if you ask him how your product could be improved, he will be more comfortable suggesting that “some people” will find the product easier to use if the dials were just a little larger. It’s a twist on the old ploy, “It’s not for me, but a friend wants to know…”

What do you think?

[I welcome any and all comments! Every 2 weeks I randomly select a commenter to win a Rockstar Mug: PIC. Next drawing is 10/23!]
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Kathryn Korostoff

Kathryn Korostoff is founder and lead instructor at Research Rockstar. Over the past 25 years, she has personally directed more than 600 primary market research projects and published over 100 bylined articles in magazines. She is also a professor at Boston University, where she teaches grad students how to analyze and report quantitative data.

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5 thoughts on “Letting Clients Be More Than Research Participants”

  1. Totally agree! The best consultants are our customers. Funny, I just posted a clip from Richard Branson who said, “A lot of your customers are the best brains out there, smarter than yourself” http://www.subscribersrule.com/?p=517

    The trick is weeding out the good ideas from the bad one’s. This is particularly challenging in focus groups or one-on-one interviews where the voice of a single individual can be given too much weight–especially if they reinforce the pre-conceptions of key stakeholders.

    We have had considerable success simply asking an open ended question in surveys, “What one improvement would you make to XYZ?” Categorizing responses can be (scratch that… “is”) a pain, but when clear patterns emerge, it changes the dynamic of strategic discussions from from ‘should we make X change’ to ‘can we make X change’?

  2. Hey Kathryn!

    Yep, customers can help design new products. I’ve seen it happen in office products, luxury table top products, and building materials – even process improvement in financial services.

    The truth is, the closer you get to users, the closer you get to detailed information and insights.

    I have found it to be very powerful to have customers describe their experiences of a product or service and then match it to what employees think of how they deliver a product or service. The “ideal” is in that imaginary place that both customers and employees describe. For brainstorming for new product development, put them in the same room. Up to you if you want participants to disclose their identity or not. 40 new product concepts boiled down to 4 new products.

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