Trade Secrets: How Businesses Gain a Competitive Advantage through Market Research

qualitative B2B research
By Sandy Monahan, Martec Partner

“The only constant in life is change.” While the origin of this oft-repeated quote dates back to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, it’s never been more apt than it is today. And, perhaps, it’s never been more applicable to business today as it is to life in the general sense.

In fact, according to Bloomberg article, not only do things continue to change in the world around us, the pace by which that rate of change is accelerating has never been greater. And it’s only going to get worse! (Er, better?)

As business owners and executives, how we evaluate, predict and respond to the changing dynamics around us can mean the difference between winning and losing. Gaining market share or ceding it to a competitor. Expansion or retraction. Profit or loss. In the worst-case scenario, survival or obsolescence.

With so much at stake, how do companies compete in such a dynamic world, without succumbing to the breakneck pace of change? They arm themselves with information.

Don’t be afraid of change

Perhaps you’ve heard a sports coach or business executive utter the expression, “We can only control what we can control.” While this may ring intuitively true, it actually gives short shrift to the wealth of external information at a company’s disposal, should they know where to find it. Perhaps you can’t control external forces imposing change on your business, but you certainly can study, decipher and ultimately “weaponize” what we call qualitative business-to-business (B2B) research.

Indicators of change are all around us. Sometimes we acknowledge them, sometimes we ignore them. Sometimes we hope they’ll go away; other times we misinterpret their meaning and react erroneously in haste or panic. Too often, however, these change indicators go unnoticed altogether.

There is a danger to any of the above scenarios. There is opportunity cost. Or an opportunity lost! There is a potential for wasted resources or misallocated investment. There is even a potential to be left behind, while a competitor surges ahead. Change, it seems, is too often regarded as akin to what Mark Twain often quipped about the weather: “Everybody complains about it, but nobody ever does anything about it!”

What drives change?

The three most common change dynamics in business are, as I see them:

Market Indicators:

  • Who is gaining market share, and who is losing it? Where does our product or service fit into that changing dynamic?
  • Are material costs changing? Are rising energy costs putting downward pressure on margins? Are there tariffs on the horizon impacting profits?
  • Is the media narrative and online conversation influencing market demand? How does that impact our product?

Competitive Indicators:

  • Did a competitor change its pricing? Why? Where does that leave us?
  • Did a competitor enter a new market, industry or geography?
  • Are investments being made in technology or manufacturing that we should also consider?
  • How is the climate changing for merger and acquisition activity in our space?

Internal Indicators:

  • In tight labor markets, how are we competing for talent? Is retention an issue? How is recruiting going?
  • What are internal sentiments about our brand, product set and market position?
  • When is the last time we’ve innovated, expanded or aggressively grown?
  • Is our strategy planning achieving our objectives, or is execution of the strategy plan a recurring obstacle to growth?

Going back to rate of change, it can be daunting to consider all of the above, either as individual dynamics or—even worse—to consider the possibility that all of this change could be happening at once. To do nothing is to invite misfortune. To react reflexively is potentially disruptive and distracting. In the most dire of circumstances, not responding to change can be disastrous. Just ask the executives at Kodak, Borders Books and Nokia.

But paralysis by analysis is equally crippling to an organization. So measure twice, to be sure, but cut once. And do so strategically, exhaustively and iteratively.

b2b business to business market research consultant

The do’s and don’ts of qualitative B2B research

Given the high stakes, it’s critical that business owners get this right. But there are some pitfalls to avoid. Things that sound too good to be true usually are. Achieving critical tasks “the easy way” is almost always a recipe for disaster.

Here are a few tips to consider:

Don’t overvalue a Google search. Just as the bar patron who’s lost his car keys and looks for them only where the light is good, there is a danger in placing too much stock on information that comes quickly, cheaply and readily. Yes, Google is free. Unfortunately, it’s also often worth the price you pay.

Remember to keep it qualitative. Resist the urge to send out surveys that only return quantitative, statistical data. We prefer to have real conversations with real people to get to the real truth about the real reasons for change. Yes, numbers are helpful. But human insights are empowering!

Don’t assume a third-party study is applicable to your own. Research should be custom to your specific objectives, measurables and aspirations. Practically no two studies should look the same. If you’re relying on broad, off-the-shelf reports to inform your particular strategic plan, you’re almost assuredly applying a cookie cutter where a scalpel should be applied.

You can’t set it and forget it. Data and discovery is not a one-time event. As the world changes, so do the facts. As the facts change, so do your obligations to respond to them on behalf of your organization. If you haven’t done a B2B study in the past couple of years, you’re likely a few months overdue.

Don’t infuse bias into the outcomes. Hire a trusted third party to gather the insights for you. If you need to interview customers to get a true lay of the land around you—and you do! —you simply must allow your customers to speak freely and openly. Even your best customers will withhold uncomfortable truths from you, but they will divulge volumes to a dispassionate, objective third party.

Don’t miss the forest for the trees. There is a temptation to succumb to confirmation bias. That is, reacting to the first data point because it reinforces what we already believe. Be sure your study is engineered to unearth the complete, bigger picture. And only design your response planning according to your full understanding of the changing dynamic.

Feel free to weaponize the data. The intelligence gleaned from a qualitative business-to-business research study should not sit on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust on an executive’s bookshelf. Leverage the information and bake the insights directly into your strategy planning document. Include metrics. Then revisit that strategy plan often to realign it with the study findings you acquired.

Hope…and change!

The only way to truly deal with change is to harness it. Properly understood, change can be your competitive advantage. It can drive innovation. It can ensure long-term stability and accelerate short-term profitability. But only if you embrace it. And only if you truly understand it.

They say hope is not a plan, which is true. But a plan is hope, provided the data is thorough, qualitative and properly designed to address the only constant in business life—change.

I would welcome the opportunity to personally share with you a recent success story. If you would like to hear how one industry innovator leveraged qualitative research to inform a specific, bold strategic initiative, send us a message.

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