I ran across an interesting “fact” the other day in a sales-trainer’s blog that was as much humorous as it was scary. It suggested – no, stated as fact with the flair of a “duh” at the end as if to squelch any doubt – that salespeople provide your best market research. To wit:
“Fact: Your sales force with those direct relationships with local business should be your #1 source of market research. Reps should always be doing CNA’s (client needs analysis) to uncover clues to help point your Newspaper web sales model in the right direction. If anybody should have high levels of market intelligence and know the spending habits of local business, it should be your local feet on the street …. NOT an expensive research firm. Duh.” (Moneyball: Fixing Newspaper Web Sales, posted Sept. 30, 2011, by Mel Taylor Media)
I suppose we could write this off as a sales trainer trying to sell training and a market researcher (yours truly) defending the power of research. But since I deal in facts, I reel when I see one mislabeled as such. I am reminded of Homer Simpson, the puzzled cartoon naïf who makes us laugh by connecting the dots exactly the wrong way. His typical response, when things go awry, is “D’oh!,” first cousin to “Duh.”
When it comes to market intelligence, connecting the dots accurately is vitally important. Brilliant sales strategists know that a single customer’s observations are anecdotal and that formulating strategies around them is as dangerous as gauging an iceberg’s size by its visible part. If two customers say the same thing, the importance of the observation begins to build. (Throw in a Duh at this point and you can stop the research right there.) So, how many customers does a sales person have to interview before an observation becomes reportable? The answer is a lot – and that’s presupposing that advertisers tell their reps the unvarnished truth in every instance. “Will you spend more on radio next year?” coming from the mouth of a radio rep will likely get a different response than when a newspaper rep asks the same question.
The truth is, “feet on the street” have a mediocre record when it comes to market intelligence. The proof is the accuracy of the sales forecasts they provide, when pressured by their managers to do so. These forecasts are usually very similar to current year results, or maybe just a little better. Reps live in a year-over-year world. If this year is an improvement over last, they are rewarded. If it’s worse, the opposite occurs. That’s hardly the best atmosphere for keen observation and critical thinking.
Great salespeople are as horrible at research as great research people are at sales.
On the other hand, reps are very good at proving whether or not market intelligence is valid. If they try it and it works, they’ll use it again and again – and they’ll come to depend on it as an important part of their toolkit. If it doesn’t work, they’ll drop it like a hot rock and let management know in a hurry that it failed.
Expecting your reps to tell you about market trends is like expecting young children to tell you whether the carpet’s clean. After all, they’re closer to it than anybody else in the house. Without good market share and competitive intelligence, those “feet on the street” won’t find the best places to walk. Good market intelligence and good ad share measurement are like advertising. Poor business managers see it as expensive. Good ones view it as an investment. Valid market research saves media companies from a lot of bad assumptions and wasted time. It also helps them figure out what’s really happening in their specific markets.
“Duh” shouldn’t be in any sales organizations’ vernacular. But “Aha” should.