Can market researchers really make the transition to business consulting?

In an earlier post I asked whether market researchers were afraid of business consulting. I think many are, but I also think that adding the skills and acquiring the confidence to effectively consult to businesses aren’t easy things to do.

The easiest way to bring this to life is through example; a recent project managed by a start-up research agency for a consumer goods (not fmcg) retailer. I consulted to the start-up research agency on the project. It was the agency’s first project with this client, and the analysis and presentation did not go well. Indeed, from my perspective, it was embarrassing. The client interrupted far too often with comments about what we didn’t understand about their industry and competitive context.

This might be forgiven for a variety of reasons, but maybe not. By way of background, I worked for a Fortune 100 CPG company for many years before retiring as a Senior Director. I worked across most of the business units and brands. At different times I was chief methodologist, head of analytics, and towards the end of my career I led a team that created and managed strategic information foundations. Translating survey results into strategic and tactical marketing actions should have been a “slam dunk”. But it wasn’t. The first project was embarrassing. The second was adequate but uninspiring. In the third project we finally got to an insight that made the client pause. They were pretty used to hearing things from us they already knew. On the third try we finally got to something they hadn’t thought about that might be useful.

And herein lies the rub. A market researcher who wants to do “business” consulting needs to deliver three things; (1) an insight that is actually new, (2) the potential business opportunity that flows from that insight, and (3) sufficient knowledge of the client’s business environment, and the attendant business and marketing activities, that enable the market-researcher-cum-business-consultant to recommend fairly specific business actions.

Finding a consumer or customer insight that is new is surprisingly difficult. This isn’t a reflection on the intelligence or hard work of market researchers. It reflects our audience, especially decision makers, because they usually have far more experience than most market researchers. They go through every single day thinking about all the different business/marketing actions they could take. They have exposure to a much wider variety of information; past research, past experiences on other businesses, the experience of their peers on similar businesses or in similar situations, research on other businesses, industry periodicals and blogs. Their information universe isn’t limited to the data set for the current project – which is often all the market researcher has access to. I reflected on the hundreds of presentations that I observed over the years at the Fortune 100 CPG company I retired from. They were almost always good analyses with acceptable, and sometimes compelling, presentation – but there were very few that made the decision maker think differently about the conduct of his/her business.

Nor is it easy to gain a sufficient understanding of the client’s business environment that would enable meaningful business action recommendation. Every industry has its own idiosyncracies. The critical metrics for retailing are quite different from the critical metrics for smart phones, which in turn are different from the critical metrics for carbonated beverages. Even categories within the same general market have different keys to success and will reveal different opportunities. For example, the insight that led to successful stock-up promotions in the yogurt category wasn’t transferable to the ready-to-eat cereal category. Getting to a “business consulting” level of understanding and insight seems to require a body of experiences – multiple situations of information/decisions/outcomes that one can and does learn from – within that particular vertical.

All of the above might lead the reader to conclude that “business consulting” might be a bridge too far. But that isn’t the intent of this conversation. Instead, I think this should inform the more general conversation about market-researchers-as-consultants. Perhaps we need a bit more taxonomy, and in that spirit a starting suggestion:

  • Data collection is, in and of itself, a legitimate area that requires expertise and consulting. The explosion of data collection modes – mobile, mass ethnography, geo-fencing, semiotics, big data – involves rewards and risks, and requires knowledgeable advice.
  • Analytics has been for some time a legitimate area requiring expertise and consulting. I think this continues, and expands to include data integration & sysnthesis.
  • Certain marketing and marketing topics are sufficiently broad and compelling and might be candidates for “consultancy”; e.g., omni-channel marketing communication.
  • And finally “business consulting” which, given the discussion above, probably implies expertise in a particular vertical; e.g., B2B, CPG, consumer electronics, retail, etc.

On with the discussion.

Jeffrey Hunter is a Principal at Market Framework.

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