Should market researchers be consultants?

If you’ve seen tweets or posts from various market research conferences the past few months, you know that one of the themes that has been making the rounds is that of market researchers needing to be more consultative. This, for me, has begged the question: do we really?

When two fields merge

Every time I start to consider the market researchers as business consultant mantra, I can’t help but do a mental review of other realms of study that have recently combined together to create a new field. Computational biology; behavioral economics; biochemistry; astrophysics. Those are just a few that come to mind. But here’s my takeaway for each one of these combinations of studies: while it created a new field, it didn’t eliminate the originating fields. That, for me, provides a bit of insight into what could be happening to the fields of business consulting and market research. For some reason, every time I hear about it, it’s as though market research will completely disappear and be entirely replaced with this new approach to market research. I don’t think that is the case, nor does it need to be the case.

Market research careers

If you look at the major market research companies (GfK, Ipsos, TNS), I think you’ll find that they all have similar approaches to a client project. You have someone whose primary role is to interact with the client, who leads a team of other researchers, often comprised of analysts and project managers. The client interaction person? There’s your business consultant. It’s their job to ask the client the questions needed to be sure that the research being done meets the client’s needs (not just the client’s objectives).

Those new to the field of market research might find that there are kind of two types of market research professionals: those who do well with the client-interaction roles and those who do well with the heavier data-facing or day-to-day project management roles. The problem is that in the industry, there is basically just one career track which seems to assume that everyone eventually wants to be – or needs to be – the one to be the primary point of interaction with the client. To me, this is like a scientific research organization saying that because someone is a really good researcher, they would naturally make a good manager of other researchers. What ends up happening is that, sometimes, those researchers find their way to being good managers, but often, they end up miserable because they’d rather be in the lab doing research than having to deal with the challenges of managing a team – and, in turn, their team ends up miserable because their manager doesn’t want to be a manager.

In the same vein, expecting every market researcher to “become more consultative” can lead to those who are happier just working with the data having to be a consultant when they don’t want to be a consultant. Just as the science team whose manager would rather be back in the lab doing daily research is suffering, so, to, can the client end up disenchanted when this misalignment of person to role happens. But most career paths for market researchers are set up in such a way that if the researcher doesn’t eventually move into one of those client-interaction roles, they became stagnated in their career paths. So they have to either decide to be stuck in a particular role, or they have to start “becoming more consultative” so they can get into those higher level roles which are more about dealing with the client than conducting the research.

A need for more career paths

Perhaps, then, the answer to market research becoming more consultative isn’t expecting every researcher to become comfortable with being the person to work directly with the client. Instead, market research companies should look closer at the career paths for their employees. Let new market researchers find where they would operate better: data tables or meeting tables? Create adequate career advancement tracks for each. In the end, this could make market researchers happier and clients happier when everyone is doing what they do best every day.

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