Learning about the technical specs of a scientific innovation. Exploring country data from the CIA. Studying environmental protection regulations. Investigating commitments to climate-change agreements in multiple countries. Researching trade data on purchasing patterns in five different verticals. Interviewing key stakeholders in the three most promising industrial sectors.
What do these things have in common? They were all part of an “unknown unknowns” exploration we did for a client of ours. If you’re in an established business, with multiple competitors, chances are, there’s data out there to help you make key market decisions. If you sell soup, soap, or shampoo, there are often standard reports than can be purchased quickly, and many case studies to help guide your thinking. But if you’ve invented a new scientific/industrial/biotech/pharma type thing, that theoretically has multiple applications, in several verticals, how do you make an argument that it’s possible to commercialize? When we set out to do a market landscape for a product that’s almost ready to market, there isn’t usually a simple answer ready and waiting. Instead, we do a deep dive with you about your product. Then we use our expertise at multi-modal research to decide the best way to narrow down your options, as cost-effectively as possible. Finally, we find experts on the ground who have similar or related expertise, to help us get the answers you need to make critical decisions about your business. That’s what we did with the exploration at the start of this story.
The good news? At the end of it all, our client got an innovation grant that helped him and his team to scale their operations, and a few years later, they’re running a thriving business with operations in multiple countries and for several industrial verticals. We’re proud to have played a small part in that. All because we like to help our customers see everything, and make better decisions.
There’s so much great survey software out there, I’ll just do the project myself!
Does this sound familiar? It can be tempting to undertake all your customer research on your own. After all, who knows your product or service better than you? Why would you ask an outsider to get involved?
Experts bring objectivity
It can actually be quite helpful to bring someone in who isn’t as familiar with your product, your service, or even your customer, as you are. Much like the Buddhist concept of the “beginner’s mind”, a professional researcher adds value precisely because they don’t have the level of immersion that you do. It allows them a certain level of openness, freedom to explore, and license to ask “stupid questions” for which your best customers or prospects might not grant you the benefit of the doubt. How else can they help?
They have a big toolkit, and they know what to use, when
What if a survey isn’t even the tool you need? Just as you are able to work with your customers to provide them with the best solution to their problem, strategic researchers can help you to determine, based on your objectives, the very best research method to use, to get the answers you need. Making a forecast? You definitely need a quantitative approach for at least some of the work. Interested in seeing whether your customers are able to explain your concept to others? A focus group or research community may be a more appropriate tool.
They’re experts in finding the right respondents – even amongst your current customers
Beyond this, experienced research experts work to make sure you are screening for the very best respondents – those who are really able to articulate their opinions and ideas. Moreover, a great research partner will help you figure out whether there is value in exploring sub-segments or groups of individuals who exhibit specific qualities (lots of experience with your product, versus none, for example, or language or cultural groups that resemble your new target market).
When the data comes in, they know what to look for
Let’s say you go ahead and you do host and field a survey on your own. What happens if you forgot an important question? Or if you put a lot of open-ended questions in there, and now you don’t know what to do with all those verbatims? It can be really helpful to have that second set of eyes to look at the questions, pilot, and test them. They can bring their experience to the table in structuring the questions to yield answers that will be useful and actionable. Then, when the answers are in, they are great at separating the “nice to know” answers from those that really go to the heart of your objectives.
They’ll help you build a story that will keep your team engaged
Beyond just asking the questions, research practitioners are also storytellers. They don’t just produce pie charts or pretty pictures – they create a narrative that moves your colleagues from why you asked the questions in the first place, to what it means for your organization, and what you can do with the findings. This will encourage them to ask questions of their own, to be on the lookout for additional clues, and will help keep them from getting distracted by red herrings.
There’s plenty of value in engaging your customers and asking them questions – and in hearing the answers for yourself. It can also be worth the investment to work with a partner if you want to maximize your research ROI. It’s a little like that old adage: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Shouldn't you skip right to your own custom survey? We're always happy at PANOPTIKA to help you with custom research, but there's really more to it than that. Even if you're working in an industry like health, technology, or science (where we do some of our best work), where sometimes there isn't much data, there's always some. If you're a new analyst in one of these industries, or you're just getting into research for the first time (sometimes, until you start to scale, it’s easier and more informative just to ask the questions yourself), start with free or nearly free. Those public data sets get a lot of use – they’re the workhorses of the quadrant we call “the light”. The answers there are available to anyone – and that doesn't mean they don’t provide you with any value or advantage.
Public data sets or their slightly more expensive cousins, syndicated data, (which is not public, but is available to purchase by anyone who can pay), are a great foundation. They let you get the “lay of the land”. In “The Light”, you’re setting yourself up for deeper questions, making sure you don’t waste time and money on custom projects, if the information is already out there. Doing a good audit of the data you already have in house is where you can start to use data in ways that others can’t. Think sales data, observational research where you see how customers use your products (or the competition’s), and interviewing everyone in your organization who interacts with your customer or prospect. Where an outside consultant can help, is by assisting you in shaping the questions that you’ll use as you move to what we call “The Shades” - positioning or perception research is a good example. It can help you see where customers put everyone – not only you and your product or service, but your competition. And it can help you get ready to develop insights that are only known to you and your team. Not sure where to start with something like that? We’re always happy to jump on a discovery call. You tell us your questions, and we’ll work with you to lay out a plan to get the answers you need.
This is the PANOPTIKA Understanding Matrix© - a model that can help you think about where you need more business intelligence, and what kinds. It's based on the Johari Window, which was developed by psychologists Luft and Ingham, to help individuals to understand themselves and their relationship to others around them. It's also well suited to thinking about positioning of your product, service, or company, as well as the foundation for your business or customer intelligence strategy.
The Darkness is that area that was highlighted by that famous (infamous) Donald Rumsfeld quote about "unknown unknowns" - Luft and Ingham simply called it the Unknown. Market or product intelligence won't reveal what might happen there, but there are still things that you and you and your colleagues can do to develop the sorts of responsiveness and resilience that will help you prepare for being plunged into a situation that even the best research couldn't predict. Scenario planning or war games - developing a whole series of "what-ifs" and the potential results is one way. We also like to use metaphor-based research techniques that free up your thinking. With tools such as Conteneo's Weave® platform, we can even conduct sessions with remote users around the globe. The unanswerable questions can't be answered, but anything that gets you outside your normal frame of reference to a place where you can't rely solely on data can help you be ready to work your way back to the light, when the darkness descends.
One of the best gifts you can bring to your work, whether you're just starting out, or you've been working in the same field for a very long time, is curiosity. Giving yourself permission to be curious can help you solve problems more creatively, demonstrate engagement to colleagues and customers, and keep your work interesting when others feel like their occupation is nothing but a grind.
So how can you stay curious? Here are just a few ideas to keep your curiosity active all the time:
Sometimes when we work on research with a client, they are very familiar with a specific kind of tool, or they have a strong understanding of how to understand a certain kind of data. Surveys are a good example. Most of us like the certainty of surveys - we can understand the statistical value of the data, the numeric nature of data makes good charts, and it can be organized and displayed in incredibly beautiful and insightful ways. When you use a survey, you're a collector of data. Oh, you might add a few open-ended questions, but the bulk of everyday survey work is about things you know, and figuring out whether you can make a great discovery by connecting them, or organizing them in different ways, or by gathering new (but finite) facts. How many trees are in this photo? How often does the river overflow its banks? At what time is the light best for a photo like this one?
On the other hand, when you use qualitative research, it's more like being an explorer. You don't bother to guess what might be around the corner - you explore. You might do that observationally, by taking a walk in the woods or along the river's edge, and taking photos, or making notes. Or, you could ask the person in the photo why they're here. What led them to this spot? Have they explored here before? Are there things that might have been helpful on their journey so far?
The thing is, it's difficult to be a collector and an explorer at the same time. The first requires precision, a certain fore-knowledge, and many data points to validate. The second requires a sense of wonder, an openness to the idea that the answers my not be easily quantifiable on a chart, but delivers a richness and depth of understanding that is hard to see in a pie chart. Both are necessary, and each kind of understanding of your customer, your market, your operations, deserves your attention and care. When you have big questions that need answering, think about whether you need to be a collector or an explorer, and it will help you decide how to structure your research in a way that matches with the hat you're wearing for this project.
Are you having difficulty knowing which move to make next? Maybe you've even undertaken a number of rounds of research, and yet the way still seems unclear. Sometimes when this happens, it's because more than one course of action seems reasonable. Other times, it's because every possibility comes with risks that make some of your team (or you) uncomfortable. What can you do?
In these situations, it's important to get back to basics. Clearly identify the decision you need to make. Then, list only the answers you need, in order to make that decision. Don't get side-tracked by "nice to know". It's rare that you can make a strategic move on one set of data, or using one sort of research tool. More likely, you'll need to combine several screens or frameworks. The good news is that this doesn't always have to be costly. Setting your priorities and conducting an audit of data you already own, will allow you to focus your resources on only sourcing the "mission critical" answers. Setting a plan in advance as to what frameworks you'll use to guide your decision, depending on those answers, is the final piece of the puzzle.
If you'd like a second set of eyes to help you create a custom set of screens that work for you and help you see everything, let's talk.
Look at those fresh new messages and materials. So exciting! New initiatives to launch. Shiny new toys to play with. But winter has dragged on, and your spring-themed campaign seems ill-timed just yet. The tools and techniques you've been using seem tired and trite. Or are they?
Marketing and sales often encounter a kind of ennui with their campaigns just before the change of season - and especially if the season doesn't seem to be changing as fast as it should. The common refrain is, "Our customers are tired of this! We've told them all about this already!" The reality is, you are not your customer's only focus. (There, we said it. Right out loud.) So while it may be true that they've heard your message, and that they're not sure you'll have anything new to say, this doldrums of delivery that you're in, is something you can change. In fact, it may not be that they are bored at all...it may be you who is just tired of sounding enthusiastic about the same old message. What are you to do?
Bear in mind that in sales, marketing, customer service...nearly anything that requires you to be customer-facing, attitude is altitude. Look for ways to recharge your batteries so you can put one last push on, before spring really does arrive. Start integrating a few new spring pieces of clothing into your wardrobe. Get a new haircut. Launch a new fitness routine. Begin a course that will make you sharper for the upcoming season. All of these will give you a feeling of accomplishment that will lift you up.
Next, check your assumptions. Visit clients and get a recap of their recall of key messages you've delivered this cycle. Make sure you correct any misperceptions so you're starting from the same page when new selling models or tools are introduced. Consider any knowledge gaps as you visualize who is ready to receive the message of your next campaign, and who can use just a bit more personal attention to get them there.
Lastly and most importantly, remind yourself and your team of your achievements. Consider a celebration and final team incentive challenge as you wind down winter and get ready for spring. Because although it might not seem like it on a stormy day, the sun really is on its way.
"We've seen our customers do this a thousand times".
So what? You've assembled a thousand observations. Although it is valuable evidence, this doesn't make it an insight. Let's dig deeper.
"I'm buried in data. How can I make sense of it all?"
"When should I do research?"
"What's the right way to answer these questions?"
Does any of this sound familiar? Over and over, we hear product managers, marketers, even CEOs, asking these questions. Over the past 17-plus years, we've helped hundreds of them get clarity by working backward from their end goal. This is the question we ask, to get started:
"What decision do you want to make?" or "What action can't you take now, that you'll be able to take if you have more clarity?"
Most often, if you can answer one (or both) of these, you'll be in a much better position to map out the research you need. When you've answered them, you'll know:
You'll be able to decide whether you can sort this out yourself, or if you need help. You'll know if the answer needs to be quantified, with numbers (such as for a forecast), or if it needs a qualitative approach (getting your engineering team to see customers' frustration as they try to use feature X). And you'll waste less money, time, and effort getting something that's useful, practical, helpful, and actionable.
Whatever your questions, we're happy to work with you until you see everything you need.
Megann and Steve, Partners in PANOPTIKA, are working for our clients every day to help they need to know to make better decisions in their complex business environment.
Want useful advice for better business decisions, delivered direct to your inbox? (It's like a free coach who comes to you!)