Jon Wood of Critical Research takes a look at the past, present and future of the B2B researcher.
A recent conversation with a colleague got me thinking about what is now expected of young B2B researchers, the demands placed upon them and how that compares with my early days in research.
When I joined Critical Research nearly 20 years ago, about 95% of our turnover was generated by essentially two projects. We ran large-scale field and tab trackers for two clients, both of which involved CATI interviews conducted amongst business customers. Servicing large internal research teams, we had relatively limited involvement in project planning, questionnaire design and reporting. Our role was essentially the efficient collection of data (something we did very well) which was then handed to our clients to do with as they so wished.
After a not inconsiderable time working with the same 15-minute questionnaire, our time working with one of the aforementioned clients came to an abrupt, unexpected and at the time worrying end. With a fantastic set of experienced B2B interviewers at our disposal it seemed obvious that our search for new clients would focus on companies with a B2B fieldwork requirement.
Was I really a B2B ‘researcher’? ‘Yes’ I was involved in market research. And ‘Yes’ our research focused on a B2B audience. But a B2B researcher? At that time, my skillset comprised scripting, project management and table production. But that was what was required from an agency side researcher at the time.
Over the subsequent years I found that selling B2B fieldwork was certainly possible with my, at that time, limited skillset. I also came to realise, however, that we only (understandably) secured some of our new clients due to the gravitas of a number of our more senior, experienced directors. Even more so than with consumer research, my experience suggests that gaining and retaining B2B clients is so often about the ability to instil confidence and trust in people.
Part of the of the ability to gain trust comes only with the experience you can share, but in my opinion, it is also greatly aided by a wider and better understanding of research theory, research techniques and research practice. The more you know the better. I was very fortunate that those people responsible for my training during that formative period were exceptionally generous. Generous with their time. Generous in sharing their wealth of experience. And generous with their willingness to let me go to a wide range of training courses, seminars and other events. I was lucky enough to see presentations from some of the most respected figures in research – Andy Dexter’s ideas on Liminality, Ray Poynter introducing his idea of Research 2.0 and Monty Alexander explaining trying to help me get my head round semiotics.
Skip forward 10 years (or maybe 15) and like many of today’s research companies, Critical now have a far broader offering, working in a wide range of sectors using a multitude of data collection and analysis techniques. Like most research companies we also now have a full service offering rather than just delivering field and tab.
This makes for a far more varied and interesting role, something which undoubtedly makes research more attractive and has helped us attract “better” people to the industry. On the flipside, however, it also means learning a far wider range of skills, to be used working in a greater number of industries.
Part of the issue facing young B2B researchers is that they are less likely to have walked in the shoes of the people they are researching than when dealing with a consumer audience. Every researcher will, at times, have to work in industries and with topic matters that are new to them. But whereas in my early years I only needed to familiarise myself with two subjects, the move to servicing a greater number of fast completed ad-hoc projects, inevitably places greater pressure on researchers continually faced with unfamiliar surrounds.
I mentioned earlier, my belief in the importance of knowledge. If we want B2B research to prosper, we will need strong young B2B researchers. And if we accept that young researchers now require more tools to succeed then it is up to us to provide them. Employers will continue to offer their own in-house training but there is a limit to what they can do. Other learning will need to be provided elsewhere.
Over the past year I have been lucky enough to learn from and be entertained by a number of fascinating B2B presentations given by some brilliant “younger” researchers. These include the likes of Emily Dickinson, Alex Wheatley and Jemma Ahmed who have shown themselves to be confident, intelligent, inquisitive and funny. As well as sharing superb B2B insight, this up and coming group of researchers will hopefully act as an inspiration for others.
At a time when being a B2B researcher means much more than having the ability to script a business focused questionnaire, the likes of BIG and the MRS will be increasingly important in attracting, inspiring and developing the B2B researchers of tomorrow. It is up to us to provide a range of training, events and communications to better reflect the ever-changing role of the B2B researcher.