When people think about market research, they often think of it in terms of an organization looking outside itself for insights into their customers or markets. That is a large part of it, but an often overlooked (and sometimes feared) application of market research involves turning the lens around and looking inside your own organization.
Here at RMS, we talk to many clients or potential clients who face challenges with employee morale, finding the right internal process, or even issues with staff performance. There are market research techniques that can be used to help diagnose those types of problems and begin the process of rectifying them. These include Employee Surveys, In-Depth Interviews with staff members, and Mystery Shopping. In fact, these tools can be used effectively even when an organization doesn’t perceive itself to be facing problems. They are all excellent ways to maintain channels for feedback within the organization and to continuously monitor performance to ensure continued excellence.
That said, we find that some clients, especially those who are in most need of answers are reluctant to conduct research among their own employees. The reasons they cite are varied, but the common denominator usually comes down to fear or apprehension. Top management is often worried that the process of asking uncomfortable questions may stir up discontent where none previously existed. They sometimes fear that the findings will just be more harping on the same sore subjects that employees regularly complain about. In some cases, quite frankly, there’s a certain head-in-the-sand mentality. There are people who simply don’t want to know about unpleasant truths and believe that if they ignore them they will go away.
Of course anybody who has ever solved a major problem knows that pretending the problem doesn’t exist only makes things worse. The first step in arriving at a solution is to acknowledge the issue. The next step is to learn as much as you can about the nature and scope of the issue. That step is rarely pleasant or easy, but it is essential. And using established, formalized market research techniques can make the process smoother and more effective than trying to tackle them informally or on an ad hoc basis.
In working with organizations that have successfully used market research to examine their own operations, we have found that there are some best practices that maximize the chances that the undertaking will be productive and worthwhile. Here are a few of these best practices:
- Embrace transparency – Let your staff know ahead of time that you’re doing research, even if it’s mystery shopping, and tell them why you’re doing it. Being secretive will only create an environment of mistrust and compound existing problems. There’s no shame in admitting that you want to learn more about your organization in order to improve it.
- Manage staff expectations – While it’s wonderful to let everyone know that the organization is trying to improve, it’s also important to remind them that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Change is hard, it takes time and it is an ongoing process. Remind people their input is vital, but that it’s only a first step. Not all issues can be addressed immediately, and some will never be “solved” to everyone’s satisfaction. The key here is to ask everyone for frank, constructive feedback, and then to ask for their patience and help when it comes to acting upon it.
- Use third-party firms or consultants whenever possible – There’s always value in the objectivity and expertise that an outside market research vendor can bring and that value is multiplied when dealing with potentially sensitive issues where confidentiality is a factor. A fresh perspective on issues you face every day is always worthwhile.
- Don’t get defensive – When you ask a lot of questions, you’re pretty much guaranteed to not like all the answers. Some people will use research as an opportunity to vent and spew negativity. And even the most constructive, well-articulated criticism can sting if it hits the right nerve. Avoid the urge to stop listening just because what you’re hearing isn’t all sunshine and roses. Remember that the unpleasant truths are usually the ones you need to hear most.
The most important aspect of the process is to act upon what you learn. There’s nothing worse than spending time and money in an effort to learn something and then ignoring the findings. Doing so will breed cynicism, mistrust, and apathy in your organization. Any organization that can overcome its fear of learning the truth should also be capable of overcoming its fear to act on it.