The next best thing to customer market research…

July 28, 2010

Market research has always been my favorite part of marketing.  The idea of using research to uncover what is in the minds of your target customers — their beliefs, their needs, their ways of thinking — to create better products or stronger messages really excites me.  I’ve always viewed research as the key to solving a complex puzzle of customer needs and a brand’s benefits.

With this perspective, it is probably no surprise that I am often recommending to my clients that they conduct customer research when they are facing marketing challenges or decisions.  Research, when done well, will typically help them find the answers they are seeking.  Most of my clients agree with my recommendation, but budgets or timing tend to get in the way for some clients and prevent the research from taking place.

In those cases, I often help my clients search for the next best source of information and ask, “Well, what do the rest of your employees believe?  What does your employee research tell you?”  And, most of the time, I get a blank stare and a reply something along the lines of “I don’t know.  We’ve never asked them.”

In theory, this response surprises me.  It would seem so easy for organizations to leverage their employees to understand their perspectives on the organization’s brand, products/services, messages, and positioning since the employees work with customers and understand the business.  However, in practice, I can’t say that this is unexpected.  After many years working in marketing for a variety of companies, I don’t think I ever completed or fielded brand market research as an employee.  The fact that conducting employee market research is a rare practice should not imply that it isn’t valid or valuable.  For organizations that are unable to complete customer research to inform their marketing decisions, employee research is the next best option because it can be done very quickly, inexpensively, and it can provide real insights.

Two arguments for not conducting employee market research are:

  1. The employees are biased because they are so close to the business.
  2. The employees may not be honest in the research for fear that their comments will impact their jobs.

However, I believe that the biggest reason why organizations don’t conduct employee research is that they simply do not think of it.  As for the two arguments listed above, they can be address with the following:

  1. While employees do have a unique and perhaps biased perspective, those who deal with customers regularly most likely have a good understand of what customers are thinking and what they need.  This perspective is valuable to understand.
  2. Creating an anonymous or “safe” process to conduct research with employees so that they feel comfortable providing their thoughts does not have to be complex.  Anonymous surveys through online tools such as Zoomerang or SurveyMonkey or the use of external moderators are simple and budget friendly ways to ensure employees feel enabled to share their true thoughts and feelings.

With all of this in mind, I would even recommend that organizations that do conduct customer market research regularly also consider conducting employee research periodically.  The two pieces of research together will yield very powerful findings that will likely lead to better recommendations and decisions overall than if just one form of research was completed.

Employee research is certainly no perfect substitute for customer market research, but it nevertheless is a very important tool that organizations can easily and should employ to help them make better marketing decisions.  Especially in cases where an organization is deciding between employee research or no research at all, the organization should leverage employee research.  In the absence of customer market research, the cost of not leveraging the employees’ perspective will likely exceed the basic costs of conducting the in-house employee research.

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