October 12, 2014

To become a great market researcher, start in B2B!

The beginning of market research was characterised by pioneering industrial – essentially B2B – studies that explored organisational behaviour. After leading the way, B2B then took a back seat to the rise and rise of consumer research.

Since then, in some ways B2B has often been seen as the poor relation to consumer research. But our message is that young people seeking to embark on a successful market research career should put B2B firmly in their consideration set. Why? Well, because all of the seven skill pillars that you need to become a great market researcher will be acquired quickly if you cut your teeth in the B2B environment. Everything you will be learning and doing will give you the core strengths around which to build a highly successful career.

Let’s look at each of these seven pillars and outline why B2B researchers are often at the heart of these core skills.

  • Pillar one: Being a problem crystalliser – someone who is able to nail the true business question

Highly effective market researchers acquire the skill of identifying the key business question. They, given the complexities of many business-to-business scenarios, know the importance of making sure they are working on the right problem in the right context. They learn to avoid the trap of working on the symptoms of the problem. More specifically, they learn how to develop the confidence to engage key stakeholders early in the process so they get to the heart of the business question. Learning how to master the complexity of many organisational, industrial and business-to-business challenges makes other consumer environments seem comparatively straightforward.

  • Pillar two: Talking to the right people in the right way – being able to set up a fit-for-purpose research design

It could be argued – and I realise this is a slightly controversial point – that in many consumer research scenarios these days, the discipline of ensuring we have represented our ‘population of interest’ with a robust sample has, shall we say, become rather pragmatic. There has been some drift from the methodological principles that once characterised robust, valid and reliable research. But in B2B research, the more traditional hard disciplines of knowing how to identify a sample of enterprises and establishments – and key decision-makers within establishments – remains an important core skill. Knowing how to carefully pinpoint the target audience and reflect this in the sampling process remains vitally important. In a business-to-business interview, if your goal is to explore the intricacies of the buying process for complex, expensive equipment, you need to be sure that you are talking to the right person – there is no way to improvise around this.

  • Pillar three: Joining the dots, knowing how to synthesise multiple data sets and see the big picture

Right at the very beginning, well before the arrival of Big Data, business-to-business and industrial researchers had recognised the importance of piecing together the multiplicity of available evidence into a compelling narrative that told the business story. So B2B researchers have always been adept at synthesising data- they have been able to piece together different types of government data, market surveys, expert opinion, financial data and a host of other statistics in order to understand complex business questions. In short, industrial researchers, in my opinion, are at the leading edge in terms of how to synthesise data and relate this to answering a business question.

  • Pillar four: Understanding what makes people ‘tick’ – getting to the heart of what drives and changes behaviour

It is true that there was a phase in the history of business-to-business research where there were a number of naïve explanations of how organisational decision-making processes work. These placed far too much emphasis on the rational, and not enough on the emotional, element of the decision-making process. However, over the last 20 years, there has been recognition within the B2B community that emotion – in much the same way as for consumer choices – plays a massive role in many B2B decisions. The adage that in a straight choice between emotion and reason, emotion wins, is not just true of FMCG purchases, but also of business decisions. This applies whether we are referring to decisions about the type of parcel carrier to use, right up to major investment decisions about which IT systems to pursue and so on. The experienced B2B researcher knows how to get to the heart of the emotions in play and is skilled at getting a rich understanding of how the human mind works in highly complex organisational decision-making scenarios.

  • Pillar five: Understanding the business world – knowing about the structure of markets and how to focus on priority issues

Being able to apply research to drive business growth is of course a core market research skill and, arguably, business-to-business researchers are particularly skilled at applying insights about customers and markets to drive growth.

For example, in the business-to-business world over the last few years there have been massive strides forward – at least in the UK – in understanding the world of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). No longer do we apply a clichéd stereotypic view of this very complex sector. Today, business-to-business experts have a rich understanding of the variations within this sector. They are able to identify the gazelles – the fast-growing businesses – and have also built a clear understanding of what truly lies behind outstanding entrepreneurial behaviour. In short, B2B researchers have a close affinity to entrepreneurialism.

  • Pillar six: Influencing, persuading and having a point of view – being a ‘Trusted Advisor’

Today, the emphasis for many consumer researchers is on making the transition to being a trusted business adviser. We are talking about someone who is able to communicate the killer evidence, and constructively influence senior stakeholders in often complex decision-making scenarios. In the world of business-to-business research, teams have been successful in building a close relationship between themselves and senior stakeholders. So for a number of years they have been at the forefront in demonstrating how researchers can work more closely with key stakeholders.

  • Pillar seven: Providing strategic foresight, being an opportunity seeker and helping to create the learning organisation

The idea of customer insight professionals helping their companies become a learning organisation is high on the agenda. The goal is to ensure the customer insight function works as a catalyst for change. They need to constantly monitor the customer landscape and alert senior management to trends and developments to which they need to respond in order to shape a successful future. Again, in the business-to-business sector, the closeness of the relationship between the research team and the stakeholders – and the way B2B agencies work with their clients – has for many years been an exemplar of insight being the eyes and ears of the organisation.

So if you want to quickly master the marketing intelligence craft and be able to add value during the next chapter of the market research story, then newcomers might want to consider B2B research. This provides a great opportunity to fast track your skills in the above seven core areas.

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