By Paul Jermain, Entrepreneurial Training Program for the Commonwealth of Mass.
In recent years, due to improvements in healthcare and the overall quality of life, seniors have been enjoying longer lives. Recently I was working with Judy, an entrepreneur that wanted to take advantage of one of the opportunities associated with this situation by providing move-related services to seniors needing assistance as they downsized from large single family homes to smaller homes and condos.
As Judy worked on her business plan, she began the research process by uncovering as much published, or secondary, market information as she could find. In spite of gathering a great deal of information, at the end of the process she was still faced with a number of key questions without answers. So, I suggested that she do some primary research, simply asking questions directly to prospects.
There are many ways to accomplish primary research including mail, telephone, and web surveys, and focus groups and one-to-one personal meetings. The most pragmatic approach for entrepreneurs is typically one-to-one meetings. Regardless of the approach, here are some useful points I shared with Judy.
First, before doing any research, decide what you’re going to do with the results, in other words, what actions you’re going to take based on the answers you receive. You don’t want to end up with just another pile of statistics; you can do that just by ordering a copy of the Census. If the answer is not going to stimulate an action, don’t ask it.
Second, create a relatively brief and logical list of questions that explore: how the problem is being handled today; what the issues are; and what would be required to get the prospect to move from the solution they’re currently using, or considering, to yours among other things. For example, Judy’s questions included: “Have you thought about what you’re going to do with all this furniture and ‘stuff’ you’ve collected over the past fifty years?” And “If you plan to auction some of the more expensive items, who will handle the 50% of the items left over that won’t fit in the new living space?”
Third, make sure that you have your hand in the development of the questions. Local college groups and professional firms are oftentimes well versed in research techniques, but they are typically unaware of your business’ specific nuances. Make sure the questions will gather answers that provide the foundation for activity.
Fourth, pre-test the questionnaire or discussion guide with the right target group. To ensure your findings are useful, check out your questions with two or three people or companies. Too often I’ve seen confusing questions asked. And, when they were asked of people or companies that weren’t even remotely interested in the product or service, things went from bad to worse. Judy’s plans to ask a short set of clear questions of several local seniors that were planning to move in the relatively near future made sense.
Fifth, stay involved in the question-asking process. Do it yourself if possible. If not, sit in on some “interviews” to ensure that the questions are being asked correctly. And incorrect emphasis on a word or two can send the results careening off in the wrong direction.
In sum, successful businesses address customer needs. When you’re starting up, oftentimes you don’t initially have a good view into a number of important areas. Good primary research, or question-asking, can help. You don’t need to poll thousands, maybe just ten or twelve prospects. It’s not rocket science and you can certainly do it. It will make a difference, just try it and see.