I work in research, market research, marketing…

When you introduce yourself to new people and they ask you what you do for a living, what do you usually tell them?  I used to laugh at my accountant friends who bemoaned how they could clear a room at parties by simply stating their chosen career – then it occurred to me that I had nothing to laugh about. The same thing happens to market researchers.

I’ve noticed that the minute you say ‘market research’ people flinch and start looking for an exit, any exit. It’s as if you’re about to whip out that hidden clipboard and bombard them with questions on which brands of bleach they’ve heard of and how they would rate each one on a 27 point scale! It can also kill off any other avenues of conversation (the fact that you’re a market researcher, not the bleach). Try telling someone you work in MR then ask them what they’d like to drink – such a simple question suddenly becomes an etiquette minefield.

I used to worry that it was me. But having discussed this with colleagues, I find I am not alone. In fact, one ex-colleague even went so far as to pretend he was a teacher. Apparently, he found he could keep this up quite well – basing his subject knowledge on whatever homework his kids were bringing home that week. I’ve never used this tactic myself – but apparently it does evoke a much more positive reaction.  Clearly teachers have a better public image than we market researchers.

One tactic I have used though is to try different descriptions. For a while I tried ‘research’.  This works brilliantly for the first 30 seconds, until you’re asked what you’re researching. The look of disappointment that appears when people find they’re talking to a market researcher not the bloke about to cure diseases is crushing to say the least. Moving on, I tried saying I worked in ‘advertising’ – which was sort of true given I was doing a lot of brand-tracking and ad-pretesting at the time.  That worked pretty well – the mystique of advertising and the image portrayed in Mad Men meant I got to talk to people for at least a minute before they discovered my secret.

Most recently I’ve been using ‘marketing’.  The Mad Men image carries over quite nicely and it gives you plenty of scope to sound interesting!  Given ‘marketing’ departments have tended to hold the budgets for a lot of market research already, this has also been broadly true.

Truth – I work in customer experience market research
The problem is that this is becoming increasingly untrue – especially for customer experience work.

Historically, most customer experience research has been conducted on a regular basis and covered the whole customer relationship.  Overall, it was pretty strategic stuff – with longish lead times for the big findings that would be applied across the whole organisation from the top down.

Yet in the last 18 months or so, there’s been an increasing emphasis on transactional customer experience programmes – short sharp surveys looking at what the customer just experienced.

Personally, I can’t help but feel that these programmes take research into a whole new field. We’re no longer supporting the marketing department – we’re part of the customer relations team.

Transactional experience research has many arguments in its favour – from the ability to deliver guidance to local branch/store/team managers to the strategic insights you can develop when you look at it longitudinally, or linked to operational and customer data.  Yet for me, the true beauty of this is how it can be used to manage the customer experience.

A weak customer experience that’s never rectified will probably lose you that customer. And the chances are they’ll tell their friends and family.  That has always been the case, but information spreads so quickly now with review sites, blogs, Twitter etc. that brands can be severely damaged worldwide by a single poor customer experience – just look at the impact of a broken guitar on United Airlines bottom line.  This damage is long lasting too.  Once on the internet a story never truly dies, you just have to hope it gets buried beneath (more positive) news.

The only way for brands to minimise weak experiences is to manage them better. Transactional experience research helps them to do this – but weak service will occur and there will be unhappy customers.  If you can identify the affected customers and deal with them then you can quickly save a defecting customer – and reduce the negative word of mouth to your brand. Even an average transactional programme should enable you to do that.

I doubt many of you have found the last 5-6 paragraphs in any way controversial.  However, some of you may feel discomfort reading this next bit.

As more companies start transactional research programmes, we are going to become increasingly part of the Customer Relations Management process.  We will still deliver ‘insight’ but our paymasters will increasingly become the operational and quality divisions who want to make sure the right service is being offered all the time and that they deal with any issues before they escalate and damage the brand.

This will mean we will need to change our skill sets – we will need people who understand CRM systems and approaches and can integrate them with research systems. We’ll also need to make sure what we do is faster and more immediate and that we can integrate ‘big data’.  We’ll probably also have to become more au fait with privacy guidelines on passing back responses!

For those of you who doubt this, have a look on Twitter.  There’s a huge volume of tweets carrying #mrx – but also many with #cex (let’s hope auto spell check doesn’t do anything silly here or it could be embarrassing), #crm, #custexp and others talking about what we know as ‘customer experience market research’.

Is this a threat or an opportunity?  Personally, I believe it’s a huge opportunity.  We all know that the biggest challenge in customer experience market research is getting an organisation to buy into it at all levels.  The closer we get to the CRM and quality teams the easier it will be to become fully integrated into their businesses.  And our insight role won’t go away.  Our clients will still need the strategic direction on what they should be delivering tomorrow – especially as competition gets increasingly fierce and they need to find increasing ways to differentiate.  This change in the way brands use customer experience research has the potential to grow it so much more than it has to destroy it – our job is to ride the wave and ensure we remain relevant and move with the times, not get drowned along the way.

NB. It’s just occurred to me that I started this blog with a question (open, no pre-coded answers) so maybe people are right about us market researchers after all!

Simon Wood is Head of Stakeholder Management Research at TNS UK.

The views expressed in this blog posting are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of TNS, nor of its associated companies.