Many of today's business and political leaders are regularly commended on their "vision". It seems they can predict consumer trends; they apparently know which brands will sell best where; or they understand in advance the issues of greatest public concern. Such foresight is a priceless commodity, and a large amount of it comes down to just one thing - detailed market research!
"We conduct tailor-made research projects for clients based on their needs, budget and time constraints," explains Winnie Yeung, director of client service customised research for ACNielsen (China) Limited. "It might provide them with better information about pricing, perceptions of their product, response to advertising, or public attitudes."
No other job gives you exposure to so many different industries
Whatever the main objective is, a combination of research techniques will be used to gather data. These include online surveys, street and telephone interviews, focus groups and general observation. For effective results, special attention is given to the design and presentation of any questionnaire, focusing especially on the wording and length.
This, though, is only one part of the job. Nowadays, clients also expect analysis and expert interpretation of the data collected and practical recommendations they can act upon. "The client needs specific information plus advice about strategic decisions," adds Ms Yeung. "Within their parameters, we select the best tools and act as a kind of business partner." She cites the example of a bank planning a new investment fund. "Without accurate pre-launch market feedback about the unit price, introductory incentives and appropriate marketing channels, they are reducing their chance of success. Our expertise can prove invaluable for them."
Ms Yeung had no hesitation about going straight into market research after completing a degree in psychology. "That was the trigger," she says. "It teaches you about talking to people in a systematic way and about understanding behaviour." After a brief spell with a smaller company, she jumped at the chance to join ACNielsen in 1994. As a leader in the field, they are now represented in over 100 countries with more than 37,000 employees worldwide.
"Graduates have a clear career ladder," notes Ms Yeung, "and a development plan which guarantees progress if you perform well." Her own rise to the top shows just that. Like most others, she began by developing research techniques and communication skills in various executive level positions.
Promotion to manager grade soon followed and Ms Yeung took the extra responsibility in her stride. "That introduced a more strategic dimension," she recalls. "It meant a change from being a task performer to becoming an insight provider. Analytical skills were more important and, in having to work with new clients, there was greater involvement in building the business."
After another step up, she is now managing a team and is the internal "champion" of banking and finance industry projects. The role involves more coaching as well as developing new products for proprietary research.
"The attraction of the job is definitely its diversity," Ms Yeung says. "In a typical day, I might work on projects for a credit card promotion, a government department, a public utility and an FMCG company. You are up-to-date and always learning about new products before the general public."
Including the retail measurement and media research departments, ACNielsen has over 300 full-time staff in Hong Kong. In addition, several hundred part-timers are available for time-critical projects or when larger sample sizes, involving up to 10,000 respondents, are required. To ensure professionalism, all staff receive a high level of training covering both hard and soft skills. Courses on negotiating, report writing, EQ and time management are offered, leading recruits through an in-house certification programme. High standards of English are expected and fluent Putonghua is increasingly important.
"New talent is always in demand," adds Ms Yeung. "We specifically look for graduates who can multi-task and understand statistics, but all academic disciplines are considered." In view of the sensitivity of the information handled, honesty and integrity are highlighted as essential personal qualities
"Hours can be long and the work is challenging, but no other job gives you exposure to so many different industries," Ms Yeung says. "That is what makes it fun and what keeps me going!"
As mainland China evolves into a full market economy, there will undoubtedly be greater demand for reliable information about consumer trends and preferences. Hong Kong companies and multinationals are eyeing the market, says Ms Yeung, and they all need accurate data to plan their businesses.
ACNielsen, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in China this year, already has offices in major mainland cities and is looking to expand the activities of its three core business divisions. A staff transfer programme is in place, enabling Hong Kong employees to gain broader experience.
"There will be huge opportunities within both the company and the industry," predicts Ms Yeung. "Market research in China may seem less sophisticated than in Hong Kong, but that is rapidly changing."