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Research that Produces ROI, an Interview with Steven Flynn of Moore & Symons, Inc.

by: Jennifer Peterson, Marketing Director, Galaxy Bright::

Jennifer Peterson:  Who needs market research?

Steve Flynn:  The easy answer is everybody needs market research. You can’t possibly own, run, be part of a business and not need information.  Sometimes you might be able to collect information on your own, but in most cases there is a need for a specialist, a person who practices the art of market research.  Many people believe that they know their business, whether it’s business-to-business or business-to-consumer and many variations in-between.  But there is always something they don’t know or they think they’re being told but they don’t take into account who is telling it to them.  So there is a need for market research.

It’s often the people or companies who need it the most who don’t realize they need it at all.  Market research is often seen as an expense as opposed to an investment because typically it goes right to the bottom line and you have to write a check for it.  It’s not a tangible receivable, it’s information. The payoff is when you take that information and do something to improve your business, to improve your relationship with your customers, and to improve your bottom line.  Companies who typically go without market research will show.  The high tech industry is a great example, during the boom and the bust in the last 90’s and the early 2000’s. I’ve done a lot of work with high tech companies and they have typically not been the most research oriented people.  They were brilliant inventors and developers of technology but they did not think: “Can I sell this?” “How much can I sell this for?” “Whom can I sell it to?” “Is there a need for it?” “Who needs it?” “Why do they need it?” and “Is it better than what’s already out there?" All these questions were typically dismissed because there was no budget for research. That’s who precisely needs to do it.

JP: What kind of information is considered “good information”?  Is it the same for all companies?

SF:  That is the real essence of why Moore & Symons get hired, or any research company for that matter. As long as we understand the discipline of the research and the science of it and have a solid business sense, the understanding of what you need to gather is driven largely by what needs to be understood from the client’s standpoint.  In some cases there are standard things.  For example, if a restaurant wants to know who its customers are.  While they may have other things they want to understand, that is the primary question that gets asked all the time.  Who are the people who come into my restaurant? Some standard questions are age, gender, income, dining out habits, what motivates a person to go to one restaurant over the other.  These are very standard questions and are asked at almost every research study that has to do with restaurants.  

A company like Moore & Symons anticipates what else there might be.  In order to do that effectively, we have to gather information that will allow your creative people to develop effective messaging so we have to ask the right questions in the right setting to get the right responses that will enable good creative people to develop messaging for effective advertising.  In a sense, there is a canned set of things you want to ask in any situation, the company who sells widgets or high technology or air and space, typically there are a set of questions you always ask in most settings.

But again, our ability to anticipate what you need, to ask the questions that are really targeted for your information needs, and to understand those in the first place is where market research lives and dies.  If you don’t quite understand the problem, somebody has to help you understand the problem.  That is where a lot of resources can get wasted in research, because the problem wasn’t properly defined in the beginning. Consequently, if they weren’t the right questions to start with you will get data back, but because it isn’t the right data, when you try to act on it you don’t yield the results you wanted.

JP:  Does a good research company need to understand the client’s business challenges and is it totally the research company’s responsibility to ask the correct questions?

SF: Ideally the client has the ability to sit down in a brainstorming session for us to ask them questions to help them think of questions they have not previously thought of and then understand how it can apply.  Sometimes we are required to sit down with them and determine what the issue is before we can determine what to learn through market research.  Typically, if the problem is pretty well defined and they have a good idea which direction they want to go, then they will also have a good idea what they want to ask.  We also ask them what they have on paper as far as what they want to know. Sometimes it’s pretty good and we’ll just tweak the language. If you can’t ask the question the same way sitting here together, then we will make it effective for a research setting and determine the proper order of the questions and recommend they add questions and change questions.  It’s always a collaborative process.  If it is not, then it will be a hit or miss result.

JP:  What kind of pain does a company usually have to make them decide to use market research?

SF:  Ultimately it is because they are not meeting their financial goals some how.  They are not growing fast enough.  They’re losing money.  That is typically when they will ask us to help them.  They need to do something and they don’t know what.  There is a situation financially and they can’t pinpoint the cause.  On the other side, companies that are doing fine will do research just to monitor the pulse of their consumer so that nothing gets away from them, or grows, or becomes a problem because it wasn’t being monitored.

JP:  How do you choose your subjects?

SF:  That greatly depends on the nature of the subject.  In business to business, the client will know their customers and will provide a list.  But, if it is a business to consumer bleach manufacturer, we can purchase a list of average demographics and do telephone research.  If it is business to business and you need to talk to companies between $50 and $200 million in revenue, privately held and you need to speak to the CEO with an engagement of VCC borrowing, purchasing a list may not be an option.  We will have to start researching to find the appropriate demographic.  Research must talk to the correct person to be accurate.  This can be much more difficult than determining the correct questions to ask.  If you are thinking of researching in one year, you should start gathering the list today.

JP:  What is the difference between Traditional and Specialized Techniques?

SF: Research is very complex and very rigorous and very simple.  I’ll explain.  It’s very difficult because there are only a few ways to collect information.  You can sit across from each other like this and talk to somebody. You can sit in a room with twelve people and talk to them. You can call them on the phone and talk to them. You can have them answer an email questionnaire on the Internet.  You can talk to them on the phone or in person or you can do it electronically. Those are the 3 ways to do it, but it’s the science of applying the right methods and the type of information that is needed and what you are going to do with that information.  

Traditional methodologies are focus groups; twelve people in a room and you sit and talk, or telephone research.  That’s the logical approach.  Call someone on the phone and ask him or her a selection of questions, analyze the information.  As technology has grown and people look to slice and dice and find new ways to capture information all sorts of specialized methodologies have come up.  The Internet, of course, is the most obvious example. As Internet technology progressed, so did the ability to use it as a data capturing tool and it can be far more specialized than traditional methods. You can conduct virtual focus groups with people across the world using pretty simple software, as long as they have computers with enough Internet bandwidth.  You can have video, real time chat sessions, where someone looks at a picture or video clip and types in as opposed to trying to get all those people in one room.  Now those kinds of things each have their drawbacks.  When you have people sitting across a computer you lose the face to face dynamic, you lose the ability to explore nuances and reactions and it’s a much different experience than typing something into a keyboard anonymously.  You are more apt to say things you wouldn’t normally say.  Sometimes that’s ok.  Sometimes you want people to respond very negatively or positively or about weird things, maybe it’s a research study about sex or marriage, things that people are not comfortable with in a face-to-face setting.  In that case, it’s effective.  

Specialized methodologies have specialized applications.  No matter how many articles I read about the latest and greatest gadgets, such as attaching cameras to people’s glasses so they can trace their shopping, it still comes down to the old school: focus groups, telephone research and Internet.  The Internet really has its place. Many people think they want to do Internet research because of its quick results and delivery options. It has very specialized applications where it works very well.  I like it. I don’t want to give the impression I don’t like it.  It’s something we deploy regularly.  The best application for Internet research is employee satisfaction research. This is a setting where you have a company of 20 to 5000 employees and they can log on to a URL and answer the questions online from home or the office, anywhere.  It can be password protected.  They can anonymously respond and in that sense it is absolutely the right application for that technology.  Where I would not use it, and where it really falls apart on the other side of the spectrum, is blind consumer research.  This is where you are not a customer of Company X, you just get a pop up or an email in your in box which says if you want to take this survey please do so.  In this case, you have no idea who is answering it, you don’t know if they are being serious and there are so many security concerns. On the other side of that, again, is if you are customers of Company X and are approached via the Internet. Say Company X makes switches and supplies them to me in a business-to-business setting. Company X can contact you with an email saying: “Hi, I’m a representative of Company X and we want to continue to monitor how well we serve you: please take this survey to help us out.”  That works pretty well.  Especially when a specific company uses a third party to identify their clients, it works pretty well.  Not good as a blind consumer, pretty good with a customer of a specific company, brilliant when it’s employees and internal.

JP:  What is the difference between Qualitative and Quantitative research?

SF:  Quantitative is all numbers, Qualitative implies depth.  They do very different kinds of research.  Qualitative is excellent for exploring deeply and uncovering who and why and what. Quantitative research is to test them with a much broader population.  So you can then say 25% of the people feel this way.  You can’t do that in a Qualitative setting.  An example of a Qualitative setting is usually a focus group of about 10 people in 6 groups, equaling 60 people tops, in a focus group setting.  That is not enough to tell you that 25% of the Atlanta population feels a certain way.  That will give you an idea of trends, issues, deep understanding of who and why.  But, in order to find out how the rest of the population feels, you have to go out and ask a much broader sampling of that population.  That’s the difference of Qualitative and Quantitative.

As a responsible research company you should never be predisposed to one way or another.  For example, if you are a telephone research company you may be tempted to fit the client’s problem into a telephone study.  That is terribly irresponsible of the research partner to try and force a round peg into a square hole.  At the end of the day, a good research company should use every available series of methodologies developed and try to lead the client to the best ones.

We do a lot of new product, out of the box, new concept kind of stuff.  That typically starts with a small Qualitative approach where we get focus groups to help explore, uncover and understand the issues and then a Quantitative study to test it in a new setting.  If it is a very well established problem, with well established data collection results over time, whatever that methodology may have been, I’m sure we are going to adhere to it unless there was something inherently wrong with that approach from the inception.

JP:  How do you know which methods to use?

SF:  I’ll tell you about a client of ours that is a restaurant chain.  To start with, this client needed all the statistics on who is eating there.  This can include age, gender, marital status, income bracket, if they read the newspaper, listen to radio.  Why would they come to them over their competition?  Do they represent home-style food or fast food or something else?  All of this information can be found in a Quantitative study.  After that study is done, we can move to a Qualitative focus group study to determine what motivates their clients.  To be sure those results are correct we can again do a Quantitative study with 400 interviews to be sure all agree.  These research results will be handed over to the company and marketing agency to implement improvements.  Then, over time, we can track it.  Maybe every 18 months with 200 to 400 telephone interviews.  It is both an art and a science.  Our methods are to have all avenues of research open and determine the best tactical approach.

JP:  How do you present your findings to your clients?

SF:  First we analyze all the data; crunch the statistics in the Quantitative study.  Then we find the most relevant info, relationships in numbers and write a report on demographics.  Any study can have 100 to 1000 data points to look at.  We will sit with our clients to have a synergy session and look at the data together.  We want to talk though why questions have been answered a certain way and what those answers mean to our clients.  Finally we will construct a final report, give our recommendations and conclusions and present them to our client.  We need to help our client understand the interpretation of the numbers and answers.

JP:  What is the most important thing a client can do with their results?

SF:  Take action.  For example, if the employees are asked research questions and then nothing is done with the results, this will only make their relationship worse.  It’s important to communicate that the research was done by an unbiased third party and understand what they are doing well, where the pain is and what they are going to do about it.

JP:  What is the worst mistake a client can make?

SF:  They can try to speak to clients themselves.  In regard to accurate findings, if a company with many sales reps wants to know how satisfied the clients are, first the sale reps will avoid the unhappy clients, and second the clients may not feel free to tell the full truth.

In regard to cost and manpower, interviewing 100 clients can run up over 40 hours of just data collection.  Once the data is collected, it still needs to be sorted and understood.

Steven Flynn is the Vice President of Moore & Symons, Inc. Moore & Symons, Inc., is a full-service marketing research firm founded in 1984 and headquartered in Atlanta.  To learn more, visit or call 678-832-2707.