This article is based off a B2B Market Research Podcast episode.
You can listen to the episode or read the article below.
Market researchers don’t always get to give good news. Researchers often find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to explain that the product isn’t great, sales efforts are failing, or marketing is kind of “meh”.
To avoid a shoot-the-messenger scenario, market researchers need excellent business communication skills. Here’s our approach for delivering bad news in a constructive way.
People pay for research when something goes wrong.
Our research is often commissioned to identify a problem and to provide a solution. Basically, something has gone wrong and our clients want to know how to fix it.
Breaking bad news to clients is just part of the job. We sometimes joke that our unofficial motto is, “We deliver bad news.”
For example, we’ve had to explain to a client that their field sales in the UK were so bad, customers were fleeing in droves. Another client had to be told that the upstart that they didn’t think was a threat very much was one. Convinced they had the superior product, one client was shocked to learn that the buyers they wanted were truly satisfied with a rival’s less flashy product. In another instance, our client thought they were losing deals to a competitor only because they had a cheaper solution. It turned out that not only was it cheaper, customers preferred the competing solution’s features and capabilities as well.
Needless to say, we’ve had a lot of practice giving tough feedback to clients. More importantly, we’ve learned how to deliver bad news in a way that motivates clients to absorb and act on our research findings.
Here are 10 ways we turn bad news into constructive criticism.
Spit it out. Being straightforward is important.
Indirectness often leads to confusion, as this excellent 2002 Harvard Business Review article explains in a discussion of “the dangers of easing in.”
Justify that research spend. Let your clients know what you found out.
Put On The Kevlar.
Bad news tends to elicit strong reactions. No one likes to hear that they messed up or don’t measure up to the competition. Defensiveness is only human.
Don’t try to duck and cover. Answer from the knowledge base you have and shoot back when necessary.
Use Data To Defeat Fear.
People often look for a way out first and a solution second. Many prefer evasive maneuvers to facing up, especially if they are at fault.
If you have to give bad news, expect for your clients to question your data and insights.
Any bad news you present needs to be firmly supported with data. That data needs to be backed up by a strong methodology.
Further, make sure your conclusions are backed up by more than one data set.
For example, qualitative research is great for adding depth to quantitative studies, as it gets at the “why” behind the numbers.
Incorporate as many relevant research approaches into your findings as time and budget allow. This will make it less easy for your client to challenge your findings.
Don’t give the client any room to question the findings. Instead, direct their focus toward what to do with those findings.
Acknowledge Sample Bias. (No Sample Is Free From It.)
Some groups will have inherent biases.
For example, in win-loss studies, it’s important to talk with customers who have actively and happily opted for the competitor. Obviously, you can expect that these customers will have some negative views of the client. It doesn’t hurt to warn the client before you dive into their criticisms.
Remind your stakeholders that the research demanded that you specifically seek out buyers with negative views of them. Point out that understanding customer critiques will allow the client to strategize more effectively.
Stay Focused On The Findings.
As you present your research, stay on target. Share the insights fully before expressing your feelings about it.
This isn’t the time to sound sympathetic. Save such feelings for after the readout.
Remember, you want this to be a conversation about what the findings mean and what to do with them. Don’t get sidetracked by wallowing in the problem and why it isn’t someone’s fault.
Tell Them Why The Status Quo Must Die.
Clients have often invested years in the status quo of their company.
When you deliver bad news, you’re essentially saying that business-as-usual isn’t working. An individual or a team has messed up or missed something, or a strategy has fallen obsolete.
Expect this to elicit strong reactions from an individual or two.
They’ll be hard to miss, but focus on the research stakeholders as a group.
Look for signals from the rest of those present to see if they agree or disagree with your approach.
Describe The Disaster You’ve Averted.
Explain how your findings are not just identifying a current problem, but preventing future ones.
Don’t just punish your clients with bad news, show them how putting out the fire now will save them trouble down the road. Everybody loves Smokey The Bear.
Offer A Cure.
Something is wrong, yes, but it can be fixed. Provide options for addressing the situation, if only to start a dialogue in a positive direction.
It’s not your job to know the client’s business as well as they do. It is your job to take what you have learned and try to extrapolate what solutions might make sense and at least start a conversation in that direction.
Offering potential solutions will also set you apart as a researcher. So many others just provide data.
Too many researchers don’t bother with offering potential fixes. They think, “I’m here to give you the data. It’s your job to figure out what it means.”
But. Consider how this makes you sound.
Think about it, would you just want a doctor to diagnose you with some strange scary illness and leave? Wouldn’t you rather know that there is a potential cure? Hope matters.
Remember: There Was a Fire Before You Arrived.
Tech companies usually purchase market research and competitive intelligence when something has gone wrong. It’s just the nature of the game. They’re losing sales, they’re watching a rival triumph, the market has changed in some way, etc. When these things happen, companies want researchers to identify the problem and point them toward correcting it. They wouldn’t be getting their money’s worth if you told them they were doing everything perfectly and still losing out. That’s not helpful.
Delivering bad news is a necessary evil for solving problems. No pain no gain.
Find The Flipside.
Keep in mind, the news isn’t all bad.
Many clients simply need to adjust their strategies to emphasize their strengths. We’ve seen clients tripping over new product development efforts but excelling in sales, for example. Or marketing that has emphasized features when it was the ease of integration driving most sales.
You get to illuminate this more pleasant and hopeful side of the equation when you suggest a path forward from the research findings.
Good researchers know not just to drop a bomb and leave. Instead, they deliver the bad news, weather the pushback, and point the client in a direction that can improve their business.
Bad news can be a good catalyst.
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