If you read my last blog post, I attempted to point out the value and significance of doing some secondary research about your industry to help guide your decision-making process.  And if you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you may have noticed a recurring theme build around research.  That’s because market research is my jam (if it’s possible to talk about research with trendy buzzwords like jam).

I believe that for many people, their passion and their profession are intertwined.  Some people, like my husband, were just born to be engineers, fixing things and solving problems left and right.  Others were destined to be novelists and see everything as a potential plotline.  And some were meant to be doctors or teachers or something else.  It’s innate, we can’t help ourselves – we just approach everything with that “engineer” or “novelist”, or “researcher” hat on.

If our family wants to go on vacation, they all turn to me, because they know I will research the heck out of that vacation!  I will make sure we maximize our time on events that match our interests, find restaurants to accommodate our picky eater, know whether we need to rent a car or walk everywhere, figure out how to work the public transportation, and buy the tickets in advance if they need to be bought in advance (I’m looking at you, Alcatraz and Anne Frank House).

I started my career path fresh out of college as a statistical analyst, using a sea of internal data to help guide internal business decisions for large businesses.  But today my passion lies in working with small to medium sized businesses who don’t have in-house statisticians or access to expensive databases.  Instead, these smaller businesses (hopefully) capture as much internal data as possible, and then supplement it with external sources to guide their decision-making.  And, thanks to the advent of the Internet and search engines, not to mention social media and review sites, there are many great sources and resources out there to turn to.  The key is first to figure out what you need to know to help plan for growth, and then you can consider how to go about finding that information.

Lucky for me, not everyone has the same passion for research that I do, which gives me the chance to get involved in answering all sorts of interesting questions for my clients.

When a potential client asks me “Is there a way to find out how many stainless steel brine tanks are being used in the meat processing industry right now?”, or “How many homes have a septic system?” or “What industries besides plastic need a temperature sensor installed in the manufacturing line?” – I can’t help but get excited and curious to find out the answer.  Who wouldn’t? 

Perhaps you are wondering WHY someone would want to know those things?  Well, if you sold a product that went into brine tanks, or attached to the septic system, or got installed in a manufacturing line, it would help to get a sense for the market potential as you work to grow your business.

So today, let’s look at some of the most common questions that I see as a market researcher, and why these questions (and the answers) matter.  Then think about your own business – what questions can you ask that, if you knew the answer it would help drive strategic decision making?  Now, bear in mind that both the question and its answer are not some magical path to business success.  But they do lay the foundation for a more successful, and better informed, strategic plan.

Here are some common market research questions I’ve addressed:

How can we find more customers similar to our ideal customers?

If you understand some of the key characteristics of your ideal customers, then some additional research may be able to help you uncover more customers like that, and also perhaps figure out ways to get yourself in front of them virtually, now that you can’t easily approach them yourself at a trade show.

Is my geographic market saturated?

This is a common question for service-based businesses that deliver their service in a particular geographic location.  For example, I worked with a landscaper to determine how many homes and businesses were in a particular location to determine whether there were more potential customers available in one area or if he should expand to a new location (and if so, where). 

What new markets are a good fit for our existing product/service?

Whether your existing market is saturated or you want to expand your business beyond your current customer base, where can you find new customers who feel that your product or service helps solve their problem?  Expanding your reach to some new industries or different types of customers can help grow your business, but it helps to prioritize them with research first, to determine which ones have the greatest potential.

How should I price my product or service?

This is probably an obvious one.  When a business introduces a new product or service, determining the right price point for your customer base is important for so many reasons.  Some key things to consider here include plans for wholesale vs retail pricing for products, comparable products, substitute products, value-based pricing vs. cost plus, and the message you want to send to your customers with your price point.  Whatever data you can uncover with some research helps drive your pricing strategy.

How do I forecast sales for my new product or service (or in my new market)?

If there’s one thing we know about forecasting future sales, it’s that you will likely be wrong.  This is especially true if you are moving into a new market or selling something completely new.  But while it’s important to embrace uncertainty, it’s equally important to uncover as much supporting information as possible to drive your assumptions.  Learning all you can about the market size, competitors, marketing budget, outreach, customer types, and so forth, can help drive those forecasts and increase their accuracy.

As a quick example, I had a client whose patented plumbing part made septic system maintenance much easier.  He was eager to get it out to market, and his initial plan was to sell it in big box DIY stores across the country.  However, when I uncovered the supplier requirements for these stores, he realized he didn’t have the capability or manufacturing capacity to meet them.  His back-up plan was to put a bunch of them in a pick-up truck and stop in at rural hardware stores in a radius around his house, selling one or two at a time.  I could calculate how many stores were in this area, and with that information we drastically lowered his sales forecast.

What external factors are influencing my target customer’s purchase decisions?

The more you can get into the head of your customer, the better you can gear your marketing message to them.  Are they worried about safety issues?  Training employees on a new piece of equipment? Ease of integration into their existing system?  What is their pain point?  How can you help them make money?  The more places you can find online to “listen” to what your target audience is saying, whether in reviews, blog posts, news articles or otherwise, the more prepared you can be with your own messaging for them.

If you are trying to put together a growth strategy for your business, then one important first step is figuring out the right questions to ask.  From there, some market research can help you prioritize your options and increase your chances of success.

What kinds of questions should you be asking to help guide your business growth strategy?