How to collect market research about a niche market?
August 23, 2006 1:32 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone suggest some approaches that can be used to do market research on a niche market aside from directly contacting the customers in that market and asking the relevant questions? I'll explain in more detail...

I work for a small-to-mid-sized software company wherein most of our customers are government contractors and manufacturing groups. I'm interested in doing marketing research within our market, but it's small, and isn't easily accessed or represented by the general public such that online polls don't help much. I'm most curious about what hoops our competition makes their customers jump through for customer support, so that I can work with our own customer support and operations team to make sure that we're not only striving to make things easier for our own customers, but also making things easier for those organizations in our market space that aren't our customers (at least not yet).

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
posted by maldrin to Work & Money (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Hmm well you may be able to get some insight through zoomerang. You can create the list or you can let them handle the recruitment. It's pretty cheap too. They can recruit custom sample populations pretty handily; I don't know if they'll be able to parse it as finely as you may require, but can't hurt to call.

Also it's pretty cheap.
posted by Mister_A at 1:39 PM on August 23, 2006

Be the customer / secret shopper.
posted by orthogonality at 1:42 PM on August 23, 2006

Do you have any customers that overlap? Do you have any prospects that are current customers of the competitor? Sales prospects, even ones you don't close, are a very good source of competitive info. So long as you don't derail the deal (semi-obviously).
posted by GuyZero at 2:16 PM on August 23, 2006

Cool suggestions, folks. Please keep em coming but already I've got some things I can look into and price out.

We do have a fair bit of customer overlap. Working with the sales team to collect competitive information would be dreamy, but our sales team is small and fear of the deal-derail that you astutely noted usually spooks them away from asking the hard questions.

I've thought about anonymously pretending to be a prospective customer, but that will just get me someone else's sales pitch - what customers get when they deal with the post-sale aspects (shipping, support, training) of companies in our market-space.
posted by maldrin at 2:36 PM on August 23, 2006

I goofed that last sentence:

what customers get when they deal with the post-sale aspects (shipping, support, training) of companies in our market-space.

Should read:

what I am really interested in finding out is what customers get when they deal with the post-sale aspects (shipping, support, training) of companies in our market-space.
posted by maldrin at 2:38 PM on August 23, 2006

So, let me address the issue of deal-derail directly. Yes, it is possible. But mostly it is not an issue. If you do win-loss analysis, you'll know the real reasons you lose deals. And asking a few more questions is not one of those reasons. If you can bring something to the table, like in-depth product knowledge, a good demo or the ability to help line up reference customers, sales people will let you ask prospects whatever you want - there's a real quid pro quo with sales people. If you make their life easier and help close a few deals, they won't see you as a threat.

The sales people will not ask these questions themselves and even if they did, it would not be that helpful. Sales people are in the perfect position to get this data, but due to the transactional nature of the sales job, they're just not going to do it. But assuming you're a product manager or something similar, it's not hard to do an extra call, walk through the product roadmap (I've never heard a customer complain about someone who knew too much about the product) and then ask away.

Also, if you're not doing win-loss calls, do them! They're also a perfect place to ask prospects questions outside of the usual sales environment and in my experience, even prospects who do not buy from you are happy to talk about their experience with competitors, positive and negative.
posted by GuyZero at 2:47 PM on August 23, 2006

Typically with a really small target audience, you get a research firm like Harris to contact them and give them an nice incentive.

You can have an outside firm do one-one-one interviews (phone based or otherwise) with a few customers, as well as people you've pitched and they've chosen the competition over you. Although not statistically significant, there are some really powerful insights that can come out of well-run qualitative research.

I can't stress enough using an outside firm or consultant of some sort. One – your customers want to be nice. To your face. Politeness can seriously get in the way of what you need out of them. Two – you need someone with experience getting people to talk. An amateur will waste your customers' (and potential customers') time and not get everything you want from the reasearch. Three – they have really amazing, targeted lists. So unless you have great customer lists, they'll be able to get a few key people.

If you have a slightly larger market, focus groups are a good, but spendy, choice.

With a market like yours, I doubt blog pulls, typical online surveys or the like is going to get you anywhere near what you need. And without contacting the people you're trying to reach directly, you're just guessing.

Good luck.
posted by Gucky at 2:54 PM on August 23, 2006

If you do win-loss analysis, you'll know the real reasons you lose deals. And asking a few more questions is not one of those reasons.

At my agency, we have an outside firm interview everyone we've pitched – won, lost or otherwise. The pitch reports are incredible ways to tighten our approach and see what we need to change, both from a selling ourselves way and business operations.

Outside consultant/professional who can reassure the interviewees that they're not biased and that they're not going to have their feelings hurt make a huge difference in the quality of responses. Sales guys might always come off as defensive or pushy if they try this.
posted by Gucky at 2:57 PM on August 23, 2006

I LOVE this place. This is great information. It certainly seems like getting an outside consultant involved would be a key element to the most popular (and probably the most certain) ways to approach this. Which leads me to wondering where I can find out what market research consultants are out there, appropriate for my market-space, and how they rank against each other in price and value. I'm glad to have that information here or it can always be another AskMeFi question. I'll do some searching - I bet it's been asked before!
posted by maldrin at 3:09 PM on August 23, 2006

Gucky, I agree 100%. We don't talk to every prospect unfortunately, but we get a member of the product management team to make the win-loss calls, for the exact same reason. We reassure them that we're not trying to bring back the deal and that we don't like the sales people either (kidding!). Sales should never do it themselves. Plus, they should be out closing other deals.
posted by GuyZero at 3:09 PM on August 23, 2006

Many orgs use committees as part of capital budgeting processes and win-loss research doesn't always penetrate committee base decision making in a useful way.

Find friendly overlapping customers and do a focus group on support issues. You'll not only find out about competitor's practices - you may find that customers may perceive issues that you don't view as support related as actually being support related, and vice-versa. Also, sometimes customers have had such bad support experiences in the past that they don't even know what good support is.

You'll also be able to build up a vocabulary of customer-focused ideas and user-driven concepts that you may not get any other way.
posted by Jos Bleau at 4:40 PM on August 23, 2006

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