From the Client Side: Interview With Bill Tamulonis of Erickson Living
An interview with Bill Tamulonis, Director of Product Development and Market Research at Erickson Living. This third 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: 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. You can find the previous posts here and here. This third interview continues the conversation about vendor marketing – what vendors do in their sales and promotion efforts that attracts and repels client-side researchers.
This and 9 other interviews will be part of the GRIT Report being published in January as part of a special qualitative section on client side views of the industry.
We have the full qualitative report of all the interviews in hand and the quant phase of GRIT is now complete and we’ve begun our analysis. 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 the message we’re presenting in this series to heart because these views are common 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 this series offer a few important pointers for change.
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
By Ron Sellers
Previous interviews have been with researchers from Schneider Electric and Gorton’s. This time, we turn to Bill Tamulonis, Director of Product Development and Market Research at Erickson Living, a leading developer of continuing care retirement communities with 16 communities nationwide and over 20,000 residents. Bill joined Erickson Living in 2006 to pioneer the internal market research and data analytics function at the company. His use of research vendors has run the gamut from phone field work or focus group facility rental to full-service where the vendor does everything from design the project to present the final report.
Ron: When do you consider working with a new vendor? Is it generally to replace another vendor you stopped working with some reason, or do you sometimes just add a new vendor to the mix?
Bill: Sometimes we add a new vendor. Usually it’s when we’re doing something new; a new kind of research that we have never done before or that our current vendors have never done before. I guess an example would be advertising research. We had done very basic advertising research before where you’d do some focus groups and show them the ads and get some reactions. But when we started investing more heavily in TV advertising, we wanted a more sophisticated ad testing methodology.
So one of the people here knew some suppliers. She had actually worked on the methodology. They had a pretty sophisticated online methodology for ad testing. It’s very detailed and they have some data proving that their scores really do indicate a strong-pulling ad. So we added a new vendor to do that ad testing.
Also, with our site analysis, we’re stepping up our sophistication, making it more of a conjoint-based method for doing price elasticity and demand analysis. So we used a vendor that had expertise in that regard. I’d say we add a vendor when we have a new area, a new research methodology or level of expertise that we don’t have either in-house or with the current vendors.
Ron: So with your current vendors then, is there in a sense no hope for a vendor that does a lot of what you already do?
Bill: Well, I wouldn’t say no hope, but it’s less hope because we’re in kind of a niche industry; a very unusual industry that it takes a while to get to know. The customer is unique, for one thing – age 75 and above. It’s not a customer segment that most people have experience with.
And then it’s a low-penetration product. It’s a product that’s full of misunderstandings. There’s a learning curve for the product and the customer. So when somebody gets to know it and does a good job, we like to stick with them. They add more value, since they have more of that knowledge base.
Ron: What are some of the best ways, or most common ways, that you’ve learned about new vendors that you might be interested in?
Bill: Well, the most common way would be just word of mouth, a personal referral, like the person who knew about the company that does the ad testing and had worked with them in the past. So I’d say past knowledge and experience would be the number one way.
The second way would be people that we see at a conference or a seminar. That’s how we ended up with our online software vendor. I had known a little bit about them in the past, but they had gone through several mergers and things; metamorphoses. I went to an AMA conference or workshop on online research, and they were there giving the presentation. They kind of sold me. So that’s very effective.
For me, personally, if I don’t know them, that’s probably the most effective way: if I see them in a conference or a workshop or something like that. I guess the next best thing would be if they publish things, like in industry publications. If they’re sort of out there as experts, then that sticks with me as well.
Ron: Generally, do you think the research vendors tend to have strong, differentiated brands and brand positions, or is it just sort of an undifferentiated mess out there?
Bill: I’d say there’s probably a large group that’s undifferentiated, especially if you’ve never heard of them before. I’d say it’s mostly an undifferentiated mess out there, yes.
Ron: Do you see a way that research vendors can build effective, differentiated brands? Or is that sort of an unrealistic expectation? I’m not necessarily talking about a research company that introduces a completely new innovation. But there are, what, thirty focus group facilities in Chicago? There are dozens of telephone field centers all over the place. There are lots and lots of focus group moderators, whether they’re independents or at small companies or at big companies. So is there a way that a research vendor can effectively differentiate their brand in some manner, or is it just by and large a commodity market when it comes to brands?
Bill: Well, I’d say by and large it leans more toward the commodity market. I guess there are a few that, because of their length of time or their size, have a little bit higher awareness, like Burke or Nielsen. But among all the biggest ones, it’s hard to differentiate. I think that’s why, at least for me, it sort of comes down to more of the personal connection. Like if I’m at a seminar and sitting at a table with somebody from Synovate, in my mind, that’s going give them a plus over Nielsen or Burke or whatever if I don’t know anybody from those companies.
I think within the size categories, there’s not a whole lot of differentiation. As a group, they may be differentiated just because of their size and awareness, but within that group not much differentiation.
Ron: What about within the smaller companies? Have you seen anybody that has a differentiated brand; a brand that actually stands for something? Or is that just a hundred percent personal connections?
Bill: Well, I’d say looking at our industry being kind of a niche industry, there are some vendors that are big players in that niche industry. So they’ve differentiated themselves as experts in a particular industry or market sector. So I guess for a small company that would be the way to do it. Pick a niche and just become known as a specialist or an expert in a particular industry or market segment or methodology. I guess those might be the three ways you could differentiate yourself. And just pound away at building your reputation and your client base in a particular industry or a particular customer segment or a methodology.
Methodology, now that I think about it, is probably the hardest one because there aren’t too many innovative methodologies being introduced every year. Although I guess with some of the Next Generation methods, somebody could build an expertise in eye tracking or mobile or neuroscience. I guess you could sort of build a niche in some of those methodologies.
Ron: But if you’re an online panel or a phone field center, just forget it, in terms of building a niche in that methodology?
Bill: Right, if they’re not new anymore.
Ron: How often do you get approached by or marketed to by potential research vendors in some manner?
Bill: I’d say daily or weekly.
Ron: And how do they most commonly approach you or try to get their message in front of you?
Bill: Mostly e-mail. I can sort of tell it’s some sort of massive e-mail blast that they’re doing.
Ron: That’s interesting. How can you sort of tell it’s a massive e-mail blast?
Bill: Because it’s very generic. It’s like “Dear William.” You can tell I don’t know them personally or that they don’t know me personally. So it’s just a generic thing. They don’t really mention any specifics; a specific need or a specific project. It’s just very general. It comes across that way. I guess if it’s not meant to be, then that’s even worse because they’re making it look like it is.
Ron: Can you think of a marketing or promotional attempt by a vendor that really got your attention, either in a good way or in a bad way?
Bill: Well, I think the bad ways are those e-mails or the LinkedIn invites from people you’ve never heard of. You can tell they’re just kind of fishing. I’m just trying to think of ones where we’ve actually acted on it. I would say persistence helps, like if there are follow-up phone calls or follow-up e-mails. Sometimes that counts for something. I guess maybe after the third or fourth contact I’ve decided to talk to the person.
As far as the mass marketing, I’d say persistence would be the one way they could get through eventually. But in terms of what I have responded to, I have to go back to people I’ve met at conferences or seminars or people that have published things and it looks interesting and I call them. I contact them.
Ron: Where’s the fine line between persistence, which is a positive thing and you’re saying that is more likely to get a positive response from you, and negative, which is, “Okay, you’re bugging me. Stop. Leave me alone.” I’ve called somebody. We chatted for ten minutes. I send a follow-up e-mail. Do I call them again? Do I call you every month; every week? Where’s the dividing line between persistence and I’m getting through, versus annoyance and now I’m just starting to bug you?
Bill: Well, I’d say, first of all, err on the side of persistence and wait for me to tell you, “Don’t bother calling again.” Or, “Stop e-mailing.” I’d say wait ’til you’re told to stop. Or I guess if you read body language or tone of voice and things like that, the annoyance or whatever. But if you get no response or if you get sort of a courteous response, I’d say keep at it.
Ron: What is the biggest mistake that research vendors make when they’re trying to market their services and abilities to you?
Bill: I’d say not asking me what I’m looking for first. They start talking about what they do and what they offer without knowing what is on my plate or what’s keeping me up at night first. If they keep coming back with that same generic pitch, without ever really trying to understand what I’m doing or want to do, then that would tend to get more annoying. If they sort of know what I’m up to and keep offering solutions, then that’s more positive.
Ron: Finish this sentence for me: If you want to reach me effectively with your message about the research services you offer, you really must…
Bill: I’d say meet me in person.
Ron: It’s that important? Have you ever done business with somebody you haven’t met in person?
Bill: Yes, but it’s been through like a referral or somebody that I know knows them.
Ron: Earlier you mentioned trade shows. How does that work effectively for a vendor? With a lot of these trade shows, it’s eighty percent vendors and twenty percent clients. And you look at the clients and it’s almost like a six-year-old’s soccer game, where there are ten kids all within a foot of the ball, all trying to kick at the ball, and the ball is the client. So as a client-side researcher, how do you avoid that blood in the water kind of, “Look! A client!”
Bill: Well, I’d say probably the most important thing would be, be a presenter or a panelist or whatever at the trade show. If you’re just sort of setting up a booth and working the booth, that’s a little harder or less effective. But if you’re actually one of the presenters or on the program, then I would say that would be the best way to separate yourself there.
Ron: You mentioned earlier that you read trade magazines. In general, what is your view about the advertising you see from research vendors today – its quality, its effectiveness, its ability to capture your attention, its ability to deliver a key message?
Bill: I’d say not very effective. They all usually have sort of a picture of a person that’s either the company president or supposed to be like a respondent – that kind of thing. So I’d say they’re pretty undifferentiated also.
Ron: How often do you go to a research vendor’s website to learn more about them?
Bill: Well, if it’s a new one – like say if I’ve met somebody at a conference or I see an article and I think they could meet a need, then, yes, I’ll go right to the website.
Ron: What things do you tend to look for or pay attention to on a vendor’s website?
Bill: I think their depth and breadth of experience is probably a big one. And the other big one is kind of the client list. When you see brand names that you recognize on the client list, that’s a positive.
Ron: What about if they’re competitive brand names?
Bill: That’s usually not a problem because that means they’ve got some expertise in our industry and we might learn something. We could benefit from what they’ve already learned about our customer or our industry. So that’s usually not a problem.
Some of it might have to do with the nature of the competitive landscape. Our industry is very localized, so it’s not that big of a problem. Whereas Ford versus GM, those are global brands, global customers. They’re all competing for pretty much the same customer. We’re more localized. We’re not necessarily going to lose customers to a competitor as much as Ford or GM would. As you get more national, I guess that could become more of a problem.
Ron: What are some of the little things that research vendors do that send the wrong message or give you a bad impression, the kind of things that might be easy for them to overlook or not even think about, but it has a significant impact on your impressions of them?
Bill: Well, the biggest thing is their responsiveness. When they’re too slow to respond or just don’t do what they say they’re going to do when they’re going to do it, then you start worrying about, “What’s going to happen to my project?” So I’d say their responsiveness and delivering on what they say they’re going to do. If they don’t do that, then you hesitate to work with them.
Ron: What do you wish research vendors understood about you or your company that would make your life easier?
Bill: Well, that my reputation is on the line with the vendor, that I’m going to sink or swim with my vendor. So they can make me look bad or they can make me look really good.
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?
Bill: I would say get in front of me in ways you can demonstrate your credibility. Again, I keep coming back to if you send me an e-mail or a LinkedIn thing, then that’s not going to do it. If you can somehow establish some credibility in other ways, whether it’s some sort of personal contact or in environments like the workshops and seminars, or publishing, that gives credibility more so than the massive e-mails or the cold calling.