Move over management consultants, it’s time to let researchers do their work

I know I’m not alone in my misgivings about the frequency with which large companies ‘helicopter in’ management consultants to try and sort out a sticky strategic problem that a market researcher could have tackled.

The promise the consultants make is compelling: a short timeframe to fix the issue, complete dedication to the task at hand and clear strategic direction at the end of it. When the issue relates to customer growth, primary research is often a key part of the package.

And yet on far too many occasions,  just as the consultants move onto their next client never to be seen again, we’re left scratching our heads and finding out that what sounded like sensible recommendations are in fact industry-generic and hard to put into action.

A strong market researcher could have achieved much more, given the right support, airtime and headspace. Here’s why: 

Firstly, management consultants’ recommendations tend to ignore unique brand strengths that could be leveraged for competitive advantage. Their powerpoint decks are crisp but they are brand-blind. The research they conduct - often large-scale quantitative rather than truly listening to how consumers experience things - is so generic that it could have been undertaken for any of your competitors. As such the recommendations can apply to your competitors too, and any advantage gained by following the advice is likely to be short-lived and subject to a fight-back if indeed you achieve anything from it.

A good researcher who is able to focus on the same issue in a dedicated way, can pinpoint more ownable and sustainable avenues to growth because they understand the brand as well as the environment. They’re more inclined to start with the consumer as an anchor for their insight generation.

Secondly, researchers stick around (in-house ones obviously, but even agency research partners are far more available for follow up than management consultants, in our experience). This is important because a major reason why recommendations don’t get actioned is that we underestimate the need for the careful management of change. When consultants disappear into the vapour after the final deck is delivered, often potent insights dissipate, falling prey to misinterpretation and internal resistance that hamstrings them.

Researchers, if they choose to, can provide ongoing support to teams as recommendations are rolled out.

So why don’t companies always give researchers the chance to respond to some of these strategic problems? Often it’s because the researchers are working on ‘smaller’ briefs and are torn between too many competing priorities. There may be a perception that the research or insight function isn’t equipped to address the really big challenges. It could also be that researchers lack the charisma and communication skills that many consultants possess in abundance (though better communication skills – and arguably many charismatic traits - can be acquired). 

Companies need to create the right conditions for researchers – particularly in-house ones – to deliver against those more critical briefs. Beyond hiring the right senior talent, challenging briefs need to be set, air cover needs to be provided to liberate them from mundane query-and-answer tasks, and C-suite airtime made available. While this requires courage, the potential rewards are worth it for all involved.

Barbara Langer