Having defined your strategy problem and completed an environmental scan, you’re ready to plan the research. One of the key outputs from the environmental scan was a set of questions. It’s worth documenting the unanswered questions carefully, because they are the primary input to your research plan.
Questions represent gaps in your knowledge that you’d like to fill through research, in order to develop a strategic hypothesis. The sources of those answers will be the research sources you need to tap.
Here are some of the best sources of research data – which ones you choose will depend on your industry and the nature of your strategic questions:
- Customers – a primary source of knowledge, because ultimately the customer is the source of income and the success of your business. It may seem obvious to talk to customers, but the question is how? Recognize that customers will have very different opinions, depending on the segment to which they belong. So in order to plan customer research, it’s a good idea to plan out the customer groups you want to reach. For example, if I’m selling bicycles, I will probably want to talk to racers separately from commuters (even though some will fall into both categories, probably). I want to separate them in order to understand the needs, perceptions and preferences of each segment separately, so I can build campaigns targeted to each. Another important factor with customer research is that it is unlikely to be useful to ask them what they want in terms of a solution – they will typically answer in terms of slight modifications to the existing offerings. On the other hand, they may be very articulate about their lifestyle, how they spend their day, how they use your product or that of your competitors. This is a good basis from which to synthesize requirements and options.
- Competitors – you may have a difficult time engaging with competitors formally, but there are many indirect ways to learn from competitors. Look at the structure of their offerings, their positioning, how they are perceived in the marketplace, their business models and so on. For public companies a lot of information is available in their government filings. It’s important to be able to answer strategic questions from a position of knowledge about competitors – they may provide you with good ideas, and you may also conclude that certain strategies are too weakly differentiated given what you know about your competitors.
- Channel – your field operations team probably know a great deal about your customers, and about the competitive environment. Developing a structured way to gather the learnings of your sales and support channels is a rich mine for any strategy research project. The channel can typically show you what sells, and what doesn’t, and may know why. They may also see changes in the marketplace, as reflected in the buying behavior of their customers.
- Executives – within your own company, there’s a leadership team. Their opinion is important for a couple of reasons.
- Firstly: they have a lot of customer exposure and may have a good “big picture” perspective.
- Secondly, any strategy you recommend will have to be reviewed and possibly approved by these people. It’s worth understanding what they are looking for early in the process. This is also a risk, of course – so it’s important not to be swayed by internal forces of opinion in the pursuit of research insight. Once you have good data, it’s then time to debate internally what to do about that data.
- Analysts and external researchers – if your project is large, there are many people who are keen to help. Some analysts have specific knowledge in your area of interest; others are adept at planning and executing research projects. If your study is going to be complex or multi-geography, there’s a lot to be said for employing a research firm to help ensure consistency and to eliminate bias in the methodology. For projects where your goal is content-rich, in-depth conversations with experts, external firms are less likely to be useful.
I always write a research protocol – an interview script, for example – that covers all the things I want to talk about with a particular group of people. That makes it easier to get help with the interviews, because the interviewer knows what to cover. I also work with people within the organization to identify customers, and to set up interviews. Simply identifying the right customers and getting appointments is a significant part of the research planning effort.
Remember, most research resources will speak to you once if you’re efficient and organized, and if you bring them some value in the process, they may meet with you again. Building up a base of customers and other people who are willing to help you understand your business is in itself a major source of value for a strategist and strategy team.