As a technology-centric market research firm, our competitors aren’t usually another market research firm – very few have the experience with corporate IT that we do. Our #1 competitor is “We know our customers, we don’t need a research firm.”
We’ll be the first to say that a company does not need to hire an external agency to do market research. (I’ll pause for a moment so all the professional market researchers can catch their breath at the blasphemy.)
Back when I had my career on the “other side of the glass,” I made it a point to talk to my customers regularly. I’m a big fan of the Crossing the Chasm model of having the product marketing manager run the beta. I always found that while my R&D counterpart did his magic to get a new software product to actually work, I could chat up the user and find out a lot about their pain, and why they were bothering to spend the time to deal with a product that was so buggy it needed a PhD to install it.
There are many benefits to “internal research.” It doesn’t have to be formal. Go to a trade show and give your elevator pitch to 100 people in one day and see how many get it – you will learn a LOT from the questions they ask in response to the pitch. Invite 5 users to a 1-hour phone call and ask them a few questions and really listen to what they have to say to each other. Take a customer out for dinner and hear what they have to say outside of the confines of the office. You will learn an incredible amount of important information from any of these activities. And in fact, because of your expertise, you may get even more from these exchanges than an external researcher would.
The trick is to figure out when an external perspective is going to add additional benefit. There are three areas where external resources can add real value:
1. Just Listening
I was presenting a customer report on product ROI and the client – a really talented product marketing manager – asked, “how do you get them to tell you that stuff?” The problem with being an internal stakeholder is that you are expected to have the answers. Which means that any customer interaction will be an exchange of them giving you information and you dealing with their concerns. As researchers, we can gather input, but since we don’t really know the answers to the questions, we don’t have to defend or position anything. We have the luxury of just listening to the feedback and drilling in to really understand it, without needing to come up with the answer on the spot like an internal stakeholder is expected to.
As researchers, we have no vested interest in the outcome of a research. We have never fought for a particular point of view. Good researchers never develop preconceived ideas before the research is executed. External research (conducted well of course) is absolutely the most neutral form of feedback you can get.
3. Finding Non-Customers
Researchers have access to all kinds of people that you may not – people who have never heard of your company, competitor’s customers, prospects in a new vertical industry. If it can be profiled and there are enough people in the world that match that profile, external researchers can find them and get them to talk to us when you can’t yourself. (Actually sometimes it’s even easier for us to find customers, depending on how bad the client’s customer database is – an ongoing problem with enterprise technology companies in spite of the improvements in CRM in the last several years.)