This article starts by exploring the meaning of ‘the wider environment’: the internal environment, the near (or competitive) environment and the far environment.
The competitive environment
The competitive, or near, environment is partly to do with the contests for market share between, for instance, a couple of banks or ice cream manufacturers. However, the term means more than that; many organisations compete for staff, for reputation, for funding or for suppliers, as well as for customers. A charity and a community service might compete for funds to run a drug rehabilitation service; schools and colleges might compete for students; campaigning organisations might compete for government and media attention.
We can envisage competitors in a number of ways beyond companies competing for your customers:
An organisation may be one of a few similar service providers or product manufacturers — there are not many passenger jet manufacturers in the world, let alone in one country. Another may be one of thousands of comparable organisations — small shops or schools, for instance — which may or may not have strong local competition from other shops or schools.
You should think of the competitive environment as comprising the other organisations whose actions influence yours, and which your organisation in by its actions. Thus it includes organisations that supply you with services and materials, professional groups that are strongly represented in your organisation, organisations that you collaborate with to provide services or products, and other organisations that provide similar services.
It is dangerous to think that market research is all about formal techniques and their co-ordination. For all levels of management, much market research is very informal. The listening analogy we developed in previous blog articles applies to formal focus groups, observations and questionnaires and to informal discussions, keeping your eyes and ears open and the informal questioning of customers.
As we said at the end of the last article, market research by walking around is shorthand for making the effort to keep yourself informed of all the different aspects of the service you provide, particularly its interface with your customers and their needs.
In practice, most managers will engage with, or be connected with, a variety of methods of formal and informal research. These can be: organisation-wide and service-specific; measuring current performance data and exploring future needs; quantitative and qualitative; formal and less formal; specialist-dependent research and tasks involving front-line staff.
All managers need to be in a ‘market research’ mode at all times, even if the intensity and range of what they do to listen to their customers will inevitably vary over time.
The process of listening to your customers is central to providing services they value. Over the past few articles we have distinguished between data and information and then looked at secondary and primary data. We have considered the main qualitative and quantitative methods of generating information and the manager’s role in market research.
You should now be able to identify the gaps in your knowledge about your customers, and what they value, that could be filled by market research. You should be able to assess which methods would be appropriate to generate the required information and to participate in the research and any briefing of specialists undertaking it. You should also be able to understand and assess the information that such specialists might generate.
- Market research is about listening to customers in order to provide what they value.
- Data, once gathered, is processed into information which influences decision making.
- Data can be: secondary, i.e. already existing primary, which is generated for specific requirements.
- Secondary data can be internal to your organisation, for instance data from performance and turnover records.
- It can also be external to your organisation:
- government agencies
- syndicated services
- the media.
- Primary data can be obtained:
- by buying 'space' in syndicated research programmes
- from the actions of panels of customers
- by commissioning specialist market research companies.
- Qualitative market research methods are used to explore the attitudes and behaviour of customers; quantitative methods apply numerical values to measure aspects of customers’ behaviour and attitudes.
- Qualitative methods include:
- focus groups: moderated small representative groups of customers
- in-depth interviews: one-to-one probing of motivations, attitudes and needs
- observation of actual customer behaviour.
- The principal quantitative method is the survey of statistically significant samples of customers.
- Surveys conducted by post, phone, in person and over the Internet each have their advantages and disadvantages.
- The questions in a survey must be clear if customers are to complete it, and if an analysis of its findings is to be useful.
- Questionnaires can feature open and closed questions; response scales are commonly used to capture differences. Managers’ engagement with market research can feature:
- the use of the control loop to manage its application
- informal listening and observing while walking around
- the use of a variety of methods at different times.
Experiments are used with a small number of consumers to compare different approaches to one element of the marketing mix, perhaps to determine which of two advertisements is more memorable.
Another use for experimentation in market research is in test marketing. Test marketing allows an experimental introduction of a change in the marketing mix to occur in a small part of the market to see how the modification works.
Test marketing is used, for example, to see if a new product will sell to the targeted market segment. The piloting of new services or products, or of government programmes, in selected geographical areas is a form of experimentation.
Comparison is the basis of much experimental research, and may be achieved by a number of approaches.
Before and after. The most usual approach is to test the 'subject' before they are exposed to what is being tested, and again after exposure to it.
The performance of what is being tested is judged by the change in the 'measurements' taken of the subject, often in terms of their attitude to it. For example, an organisation might decide to introduce a new training programme for its sales force designed to increase their productivity.
The productivity of the sales force would be measured before the training course, and again after the course to discover if it had made any difference.
Split runs. Different stimuli (services, products, programmes, advertisements, etc.) are applied to separate but statistically equivalent groups, and the results compared across them.
If the aim were to increase the productivity of the sales force, the organisation could try two different training programmes. It could divide its sales force into three groups: one which received no additional training, one which received training programme A, and one which received training programme B. The organisation could then measure any change in productivity in the three groups following the training.
Difference. In some tests the objective is simply to see if the subject can tell the difference between the stimuli — often products — being presented. A subject might be presented with two brands of coffee and asked to say if they can tell one from the other, and which they prefer. Sometimes 'triads' are presented, where two products are the same and one is different. The subject will then be asked to distinguish between them.
In practice, organisations and managers use a variety of methods of market research simultaneously.
First, you need to be clear about what you are trying to achieve by using market research — what is the value you aim to add to your customers' experience? What performance objective of your team, section, project or organisation will the information contribute to?
Second, you need to plan: what information do you need, and when, from whom and how will you get it? Can you convert your objectives into a clear set of research questions and a formal research plan? What are the alternative ways of ascertaining what information you need and their benefits and costs? Are you going to gather a limited amount of data from a variety of sources using several techniques? How are you going to co-ordinate the whole process?
As the research progresses, you need to review whether it is generating the information you need. What adjustments need to be made to the research methods you have chosen, or what additional ones are needed? It should now be an ongoing process of data gathering and information assessment. This should lead to decisions by you and others, based on the information, about the products and services you provide to customers, their value and how you provide them.
Remember that market research is conducted to support decision makers during all stages of the decision-making process. You need to have cost-effectiveness in mind at all times when engaging in market research.
If market research is about supporting decisions, then the long-term benefit of the information it provides must outweigh the cost of gathering the information. Market research by walking around It is dangerous to think that market research is all about formal techniques and their co-ordination.
For all levels of management, much market research is very informal. The listening analogy we developed at the start of this session applies to formal focus groups, observations and questionnaires and to informal discussions, keeping your eyes and ears open and the informal questioning of customers.
Market research by walking around is shorthand for making the effort to keep yourself informed of all the different aspects of the service you provide, particularly its interface with your customers and their needs.
To ensure that questions asked are valid and meaningful, it is sound practice to test a questionnaire on a number of respondents, so that potential problems can be solved before the cost of a full survey is incurred.
If a computer is being used for analysis, this also needs to be part of the test, so that it is known whether the questions asked will yield the clarity of information required. Clear questions are amply rewarded by clear results. Next we will look at the two main types of question used in surveys.
Survey question types
Open questions. The respondent answers in their own words. The questions are asked in the same way each time, but there is no preconceived set of expected answers. However, to be statistically useful the answers then have to be categorised in a meaningful way. This imposes extra costs, and requires that the person analysing the results understands what cryptic comments by respondents mean.
A simple open question is ‘Why did you buy Brand A?’ The respondent can give any answer they like, such as ‘Because it was the only one available’ or ‘I have tried all alternatives and found this to be the one that suits me best.’
Projective techniques such as the three below can generate answers which are more consistent in style for analysis purposes:
Sentence completion. “When I chose Brand A, the most important thought on my mind was ... (complete the sentence)”.
Word association tests. The interviewer reads a word to the respondent, and asks them to say the first thing that comes to mind. Word association tests are used to select brand names, slogans and advertising campaigns.
Third-person techniques. Rather than asking someone about themselves, questions are asked about, for instance, ‘most people’. For example, a researcher might ask, ‘Why don't most people get as much exercise as they should?’ This is useful if they want to avoid embarrassing a respondent, or if a respondent might not want to answer a question.
Most questionnaires are based on closed questions, in which the respondent is asked to choose between a number of answers. Alternatively, the interviewer is asked to assign the respondent's answer to an apparently open question to one of a number of answers which have been decided in advance.
Answers to closed questions are easier to analyse and less ambiguous. However, the respondents are precluded from giving an answer outside these parameters, unless an ‘other’ response category is included. Typical approaches to closed questioning are:
Numbers. Questions are in the form ‘How frequently do you give donations to Organisation A?’ or ‘How much did you pay for Brand X?’ These are dependent on the accuracy of respondents' memories, unless the ‘process’ being investigated is very regular or easily remembered.
Yes / No statements. The respondent is simply asked to agree or disagree: for example, ‘I have donated money to the International Red Cross (Yes/No).’
Multiple choice questions. The basic question is expanded so that the respondent chooses an answer (or sometimes more) from various alternatives. For instance: ‘Which of these organisations have you ever supported, by becoming a member or by giving money?’
Often interviewers simply ask questions such as 'Which organisations have you ever supported?' and code the answer on a preprinted list. This is a ‘spontaneous’ or ‘free-form’ answer.
Semantic differential scale. The respondent is asked to choose their position on a scale between two contrasting words (or a range of words or numbers representing different viewpoints). For example: Excellent; Good; Adequate; Poor; Inadequate.
Some scales deliberately omit a middle answer, so that the respondents have to choose which side of the scale they are on. Sometimes a question may combine numbers and phrases: ‘In the last year, have you contacted the Citizens Advice Bureau —five or more times; between two and four times; once; not at all?’
This week we focus on using quantitative research methods in your quality management system.
Quantitative research methods
Qualitative research can often lead to quantitative research, which puts figures on issues identified. Sometimes the boundary is blurred. When the Labour Party, for instance, commissioned more than 30 focus groups before the UK's 1997 general election, this was a form of quasi-quantification of a qualitative method - the sheer weight of numbers of focus groups was felt to lend some statistical significance to the results.
Many researchers would dispute that this was possible. In general, though, it is common to quantify the trends shown by qualitative research by more conventional quantitative methods.
In a survey, a large, and thus statistically significant, sample of the population of interest is asked questions which relate to the issues at hand. Four important means of conducting surveys are by post, by telephone, in person and over online.
By post. Postal surveys are the most frequently used form of survey. They are easy to use and cheap compared with personal and telephone interviewing, so can be used in situations where other methods are not practicable.
Large overall samples can be used, allowing the investigation of small market segments within acceptable statistical levels. Genuinely random samples may be identified, for example from electoral lists.
However, the questions which can be asked are necessarily simpler and the questionnaire is shorter than in personal interviewing. Postal surveys are supposedly less reliable, particularly because the non-response rate — those not returning the questionnaire — is often so high that their statistical validity may be questioned; the majority of the sample the non-respondents, might behave differently from those who have responded.
Good research design and explanations of why a survey is being conducted can encourage recipients to reply. Some postal surveys promise to make a charitable donation for every questionnaire returned, and this can motivate people to respond. Or respondents can be offered some form of reward in return for their completed questionnaires.
Some postal surveys are followed up by telephone calls to a sample of those not completing the questionnaire, to see if their responses are different from those of the people who have replied.
By telephone. Telephone surveys can give very quick results and are often used for opinion polls if time is critical. They are also relatively cheap. In countries where telephone ownership is limited' it may be difficult to establish representative samples. Sampling can be complicated by the growth of mobile networks, the fragmentation of directory listings and the use of messaging and answering systems.
Interviews can last only a short time and the types of question are limited, partly because an interviewer cannot check visually that a question has been understood. Personal interviewing. This is the traditional face-to-face approach to consumer market research, and it is still the most versatile.
The interviewer is in control of the interview, and can take account of interviewees' body language as well as their words. It is expensive, however, and depends on the reliability and skills of the interviewer.
Reputable agencies try to exert the necessary control over their personnel, usually by having a field manager conduct follow-ups of a sub-sample.
Online. People who use particular services on the Internet or who visit certain sites can be asked questions which reveal their preferences, experiences and behaviour. Response and analysis times can be fast. The method can be effective for targeting specific groups of Internet-using consumers, but these may not be genuinely representative consumer populations.
Surveys need to be highly user-friendly, with few questions and perhaps incentives for completion. Good questionnaire design is crucial to successful survey research. Questionnaires must be carefully and skilfully developed.
In the first instance they must be comprehensive. If a question is omitted it will obviously not be answered, and it may be impossible to ask the respondents later. Second, the questions need to be in a language that the respondents understand, so that the answers will be clear and unambiguous.
Many words used by researchers and their clients, even those used in their everyday language, may be strange to the respondents they are testing, particularly if these include people less educated than the questionnaire designers.
For instance, words such as 'incentive', 'quota' and 'marginal' may not be properly understood by everybody. In addition, if the form of questioning is too complex or too vague it may elicit confused answers. For example, a question that asks respondents how often they take flights in a year and gives possible responses as 'very frequently', ‘frequently', 'quite often', 'not very often' and 'never' may seem easy to answer, but respondents' interpretations of the terms may differ.
One respondent might consider five times a year to be frequently, while another thinks 25 times a year is frequently. The resulting analysis would not be helpful.
Finally, questionnaires should not include leading questions, that is, questions leading to answers preconceived by the researcher or the client. An example of this type of question might be 'Do you think it is right to impose a 5 per cent tax on fuel bills?' The choice of words in this question — the use of 'right' and 'impose' — is clearly prompting the answer 'No' from the respondent.
This is an obvious example; some questions are subtler, and often the person setting them will not recognise that they have asked a leading question. The most basic fault of much research is that, as a result of bad design, it produces the answers that the researcher expects or wants to hear. The questions must be neutral, to encourage the respondents to reply truthfully.
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