From the Client Side: An Interview With Marc Philippe Witham
To hear more from the perspective of the corporate researcher, this new occasional Greenbookblog.org feature will spend some time with a researcher From the Client Side. This particular interview continues the conversation about vendor marketing – what vendors do in their sales and promotion efforts that attracts and repels client-side researchers.
Editor’s Note: After the great response to Ron’s first “From The Client Side” interview, we decided to not only expand the series, but to also tie it into the upcoming Summer 2013 GRIT study as a full blown qualitative initiative comprised of 10 IDIs with client side decision makers on the topics of vendor selection and use of “next generation” approaches. In some cases the participants also agreed to allow their interviews to be posted here on the blog. Today’s interview with Marc Philippe Witham of Schneider Electric is one of those cases, and the focus is on vendor selection.
We have the full qualitative report of all the interviews in hand and the quant phase of GRIT will be launching next week to explore many of these ideas further. The combination of the depth of these IDIs and the global coverage of GRIT will produce an extraordinarily powerful resource for all MR professionals, so stay tuned for more on our findings as we do more sneak peeks like this interview.
If you are a research supplier; take Marc’s message to heart because his view is a common one on the client side. The marketing and sales process has changed in this and many industries and doing the same old, same old isn’t likely to yield positive results. It’s time for the industry to learn a new model of engagement and Marc gives a few important pointers below.
Special thanks goes to Zev Averbach of Averbach Transcription for their generous donation of resources in transcribing all of these interviews. They are good folks; you should check them out here: http://www.avtranscription.com
My first interview was with Jill Capps, Assistant Manager of Marketing Research at Gorton’s. With this second interview, we move from frozen seafood to electrical distribution systems. Marc Philippe Witham is Senior Market Research Analyst at Schneider Electric, a French company with U.S. operations headquartered in Palatine, IL. Marc has been with Schneider for eight years, and is part of a four-person research department that conducts much of the work internally. Marc handles quantitative design and analysis and moderates in both French and English. His most common use of research vendors is working with qualitative recruiters and facilities. All of his work is business-to-business.
Ron: When do you consider working with a new vendor? Is it usually to replace somebody you have had issues with, or sometimes do you just add a new vendor to the mix?
Marc: It’s a mix. I was using a recruiting firm that basically quit on me. I wanted them to continue. They did great work. But they weren’t making enough money on the national work. They were a local firm out in California trying to go national in terms of the recruiting. And they did that for about two years, and then came to me and said, “This is too difficult. We’re outsourcing too much of this stuff and not making enough money on it.” And so I had to scramble for the next project, which was just a few weeks away, to get that done. In terms of adding any new vendors, not too much. The ones that I tend to use are generally the ones I’ve already been using for a while. So it’s mostly replacing vendors.
Ron: What are some of the best ways, and the most common ways, that you learn about new vendors in which you might have an interest?
Marc: Mostly word of mouth. I treat something like that almost like asking a friend for a restaurant recommendation or a film, because it’s hard to get a really unbiased opinion out there on the Internet or somewhere like that. Everybody says they do great work.
So mostly it’s word of mouth. But it’s also networking sites such as LinkedIn. I like to look at a vendor’s profile, if they’ve answered certain questions on market research, or if I’ve had previous contact with them. You can look at a person’s history. You can look at the recommendations a person has. You can get more of a sense of what they are, so to speak, on a social media site like LinkedIn. And so I look at all of those, and I would treat them as an unbiased third party, in looking at the different vendors and their advantages and disadvantages, so to speak.
Ron: In general, do you think research vendors tend to have strong differentiated brands or brand positions? Or is the brand position sort of a commodity out there and they’re fairly undifferentiated?
Marc: I think it’s very undifferentiated. If I were to think of a good brand of automobiles, I can immediately think of a Mercedes or something like that. And I don’t care about cars myself, but even I know that. When it comes to market research vendors, no, I don’t think there are really strong brands out there. There are some brands, like Millward Brown I believe is a big firm. But it’s just a big firm. I wouldn’t necessarily think that they would do a better job at anything that I might need than a smaller company. In fact, the smaller company might even be better because they’d pay more attention to me. I might not get lost in the fray with all their other clients.
I think the people that really offer a great service…it’s hard to tell them from everyone else. I think they get hidden by the masses, so to speak.
Ron: Do you see a way that an individual research vendor could build an effective, differentiated brand? Or is that just sort of an unrealistic expectation in this industry?
Marc: It might be a chimera, because what I want out of a market research vendor may not be practical, in a sense, for anyone individually. What I want is somebody who doesn’t come straight to me and say, “We want to be your partner. We want to do this work for you,” as opposed to coming to me and saying, “Well, what kind of work do you do?” Getting to know me first and worrying about the sale after that. For me it’s a lot of trust, so to speak.
Ron: So it’s very personal.
Marc: It’s a personal thing. For instance, that one recruiter I told you about, out of California, that had to quit on me. The reason I chose their facility was because I put out bids to do the focus groups there. And I had mentioned in my e-mail the kind of target audience we were looking for, which was facility engineers for buildings of more than 10,000 square feet. And I got bids from everyone. But this one recruiter and facility came back to me not only with a bid, but with a list of buildings around their facility that matched that criterion. And I remember thinking, “Okay, that’s someone who’s not only thinking, but really knows their area and is willing to go to the trouble, as part of their bid, to show that sort of work and initiative.” So I went with them. That built that trust immediately.
Ron: And then you contrast that with the experience I had when I asked a facility to send me a list of churches that were within a recruitable area…and they faxed me a list of Church’s Fried Chicken outlets.
Marc: But that’s the thing. You don’t know that until you actually start to get to talk to these people and get a bit of a relationship. You just can’t go down a list and say, “Oh, this is the guy that’s going to fax me a fried chicken place instead of houses of worship, while this is the person who’s going to take the initiative.” You have to get to know them. You have to start working with them. Then you learn all that.
Ron: But playing devil’s advocate, if you’re going to buy a new car, you’re going to check out Kelley Blue Book and Consumer Reports and you’re going to take a test drive and things like that – but still Mercedes, in your mind, has a very defined position. The brand stands for something in your mind, even if you have no personal experience with it at all. Do you think it’s feasible for a research vendor to have that same kind of brand position, even if you have no personal experience with them?
Marc: All I can say is I haven’t seen it. I can’t say it’s impossible, but I haven’t seen it. It hasn’t been in my experience.
Ron: How often do you get approached by or marketed to by potential research vendors in some manner?
Marc: All the dang time. And it’s mostly by e-mail. “Here’s another report. You might be interested in this report.” And then other ones that are a little bit more personalized. “Hi, Marc, since you’re a sales/marketing professional, we thought you’d be interested in this report.” They don’t even know if I’m sales or marketing or market research. That’s the kind of stuff I get a lot.
The other one would be – not to pick on any one country – via LinkedIn, a lot of Indian market research firms. And they’re relentless. They’re relentless particularly if you’ve had some contact with them. I had contacted and spoken to a few of them because I needed a transcription service for a focus group I did in India. And that’s all I needed. But after that they won’t let me alone. “What else can we do? What other projects do you have? What’s the next project?” I’m like, “I’ll contact you when I have another project.” I can say that half a dozen times and they’ll keep coming, keep coming, keep coming. To the point where I’d say, “You know, I think we have a cultural difference. If I need something I will contact you. You don’t need to contact me ever again. Just basically leave me alone. You’re only making it worse.” And they still come back. They’ll wait a little bit longer, but they’ll still come back.
Ron: What’s the balance, though? One of the truisms in sales and marketing is if you totally leave people alone and ignore them, they’ll forget about you. So you do want to stay on people’s radar. But you don’t want to annoy them. You don’t want to tick them off. So what is the balance?
Marc: Well, part of that balance is not coming to me and saying, “What’s the next project I can do for you?” It’s maybe waiting six months, maybe nine months, a year, and saying, “What’s going on with you? How are things with you?” Try to be friendly. Just try to be a normal kind of person. Forget you’re trying to sell me something. And use normal interpersonal skills to keep the relationship open.
Don’t come to me and say, “What’s the next project for us?” Because if there were another project, I would have contacted you. I just don’t have anything else for you. If you keep coming to me with that, it’s only going to annoy me. And eventually I’m not going to work with you because you bugged the living daylights out of me.
The happy medium is waiting at least several months. And just keep the relationship open. Don’t try to sell me, because you don’t need to try to sell me something for me to remember you. If anything, keep the relationship open. I’ll more likely remember the vendor. That’s all I need. I don’t need to be sold to every six months.
Ron: What else do research vendors do that turns you off or that’s a mistake when it comes to the sales and promotion and marketing?
Marc: Beyond bugging me, it’s when they don’t treat me as a person, as opposed to the next client they can check off and say, “Hey, boss. I just found a new client.” Just treat me like a person.
I remember at a previous company one of the guys in marketing would talk about when he was in IT sales, he might be selling $50,000 worth of servers. But he would personally buy some cables. Or a mouse or two. And the customers would love that, and that creates loyalty. In Louisiana they call it a lagniappe. Just a little thing. If you’ve got a market research report, “Hey, you’re in the electrical distribution industry. I happen to have a report. Let me send that on to you. It might be of interest.” Then you remember. And then you’re thinking, “Oh, yeah, I owe the guy something. He was nice to do that.”
Ron: What is the most overdone message that research vendors out there are promoting? The one where you say, “If one more vendor says this to me or makes this claim…”
Marc: For me it’s that they’ll do anything and everything, it’ll be a top-quality job, and yet they haven’t asked me what kind of work I might need. Every vendor has their strengths and weaknesses. And overpromising without even knowing what I might ask them to do means that they haven’t listened. It means they’re overpromising, and it means that they’re willing to overpromise and I’ll probably be, at the very least, underwhelmed by the service at the end, if not ticked off.
Ron: We talked about e-mail. But how do you tend to react when a research vendor you’ve not talked with before calls you out of the blue or sends you a letter?
Marc: Letters I don’t get. E-mails I get and I tend to ignore, frankly. With a phone call, if someone calls me, I’ll pick up and I’ll talk to them. You’re talking live to a person. I’ll chat with them if they call me in person. E-mail out of the blue, I just ignore.
Ron: Finish this sentence for me. “If you really want to reach me effectively with your message about the research services you offer, you must…”
Marc: Get to know me.
Ron: How does somebody get to know you when you haven’t reached out to them, they have no personal connection with you, and they’re sitting in Sarasota or Pittsburgh? Unless they catch up with you at a conference or they happen to sit next to you on a plane, how does somebody get to know you?
Marc: For me, I’m open to networking on a site like LinkedIn if somebody contacts me. I’m what they call an “open networker.” So almost anyone who comes to me – it can be a leather vendor from Mozambique who says, “You want to link profiles?” I’ll link profiles. It doesn’t matter who. And if they come to me and say, “Hey, we’re wondering what you like. What kind of work you do,” yeah, I’ll talk with them.
Ron: In general, what is your view about the advertising you see from vendors – its quality, its ability to capture your attention, its effectiveness or ability to deliver a key message?
Marc: I don’t think much of it. In maybe ten years of looking at Quirk’s and other publications, I can remember one ad that I really liked.
Ron: What was it about that ad that you liked?
Marc: It used humor. And it addressed the specific need of mine of good recruiting. The text was, “You asked for a lab specialist.” And the picture was a woman with about five Labrador retrievers on a leash. In fact, I liked it so much that I took that picture of the lab specialist and put it into a PowerPoint of mine describing what focus groups are.
Ron: Did you contact that firm based on that ad?
Marc: No. (Laughs)
Ron: If you liked it so much, why didn’t you call the firm?
Marc: Probably because it’s just an ad. To me, they thought of something clever in the ad. And maybe it was their ad firm that thought of that idea, instead of them. I have no idea.
Ron: You’re not the first person that I’ve talked with, in a variety of different industries, who has basically said, “The advertising directed at me is useless. I don’t pay attention to it. It doesn’t work.” Help me understand. You work for a company where I’m sure one of the things you’re doing at various times is testing advertising.
Marc: Exactly. And as a researcher, I hear that same thing.
Ron: And yet we know that advertising works. Not all of it, certainly. Not always in the way it’s intended to. But we know in study after study after study and live experience after live experience that advertising does work. I’m not trying to defend research industry advertising. But is there some element of your answer that is sort of the typical consumer response that you get as a moderator all the time, which is, “Yeah, this stuff doesn’t work on me”?
Marc: Yeah, it may very well be that. But when I’ve sought recruiters – that’s probably one of the bigger things that I’ve had to look for – I don’t go to Quirk’s and look at a list or look at their advertising. I go by word of mouth. I talk to other people in the industry. Or I’ll go on LinkedIn and I’ll say, “Hey, anybody know any good recruiters for B2B research?” That’s how I find people. Or when it came to the online community vendors when we were building that, I went to Gartner and IDC because they were third-party, and presumably unbiased. And I did web searches, to find out what these vendors were all about, and then I started to study them. But never did I look at an advertisement and say, “I need to talk to them.”
Ron: How often do you go to a research vendors’ website to learn more about them? For example, somebody recommends a recruiter. Do you go to their website and take a look at it?
Marc: No. Because a lot of the recruiters themselves are independent. These are people who work from home and don’t necessarily have their own website for their recruiting. With focus group facilities, I have. But I think for the most part it’s to find out where their location is, or maybe if they listed some of the work they’ve done. Their references, for example. They’ve done work for IBM or GE or something like that. That is something I would be interested in seeing.
Ron: Competitive experience is a pretty delicate balance. If you see a couple of your competitors on a vendor’s client list, do you tend to think, “Oh, good, they know my industry. That’s in their favor”? Or do you tend to think, “Well, that’s a competitive threat. That’s actually against them”?
Marc: It’s the first one. It’s, “Oh, good. They know my industry.” And the reason I totally emphasize that is because there’s not a lot of research done by our industry. Due to the technical nature of it, and that it’s B2B and our target audiences are generally hard to find, it means that sort of expertise is worth its weight in gold.
Ron: What do you wish research vendors understood about you or your company that would make your life easier?
Marc: Probably the fact that we’re not a cookie-cutter sort of industry. We’re not selling chewing gum. We’re not selling cars or bouncy balls. We’re selling something that’s technical; that can kill people if poorly maintained or poorly installed. Electricity is dangerous stuff. Also, the fact that people who purchase for their companies behave in a different manner than when they’re purchasing in a grocery store.
Ron: Finally, what advice would you give to research vendors that want to be more effective in marketing or promoting their services to people like you?
Marc: I would hate to be someone who has to do that. I really would. Because I don’t want to be contacted unless it’s serendipitously exactly what I’m looking for. Beyond that, I don’t want to be contacted. I really don’t. I want to go out and find the right person. When I have a need, then I’ll go and look.
The advice I would have I don’t think is necessarily practical on a long-term basis. Because if you’re a vendor – particularly a small vendor – the approach that I want is contact me, find out what I do, find out about my industry, and then keep the relationship open. But there may not be any payoff for that. I may not have anything at all, ever. If I need a vendor for something, then I’ll contact that person. But that may never occur. So it may not be practical for the small vendors to use the approach that I’m saying is what I want. It’s a catch-22 sort of answer, really.
Ron: What I’m trying to get at is not necessarily what do you like, but what’s going to work…or what’s likely to work, because obviously nothing works every time.
Marc: What’s worked with me is the soft sell. That’s the expression. The soft sell. Not the hard sell. I would also emphasize the social media aspect of it. I see vendors in the same way some people would say, “Let’s go find a nice Italian restaurant,” and they go on Yelp or something like that, as opposed to going to the yellow pages or paying attention to some coupon they got in the mail. Myself, I couldn’t care less about that. What I care about is, I want a good meal. I’m going to go to a social media site and read people’s reviews – with a grain of salt the size of my fist because you don’t know those people. But you get a sense of it. And then particularly if there is someone on that site who’s criteria, thinking, and standards are the same as mine, I’m much more likely to go to a place that person recommended, because I know he or she thinks like me.
Ron: Have you ever read a comment from a vendor on LinkedIn , for instance, and just thought, “Wow – I will not be calling that person”?
Marc: It’s probably happened. I can’t remember. But I have done the opposite. I’ve seen a good comment and I contacted them. That was an element in choosing somebody for an ethnography study that we just completed. I think I may have even put a question on a board on LinkedIn, on either Market Research or Market Research Knowledge Forum, which I run. And then waited to see what came in. And that’s how I found one guy that we eventually chose. He responded and said, “I remember your name and I think it’s from LinkedIn.” So I copied and pasted his name back into my LinkedIn inbox, and lo and behold, several years ago he and I had e-mailed each other on a particular topic. Then I could go back and read the comments and the question and whatnot and think, “Oh, yeah. That was interesting.”