When a company has plans to launch a new product, reposition a brand, or simply boost sales, the first step is to get the best view of the current and potential market. Without a detailed understanding of customer preferences and buying habits, it's almost impossible to put together an effective marketing campaign or a winning strategy.
"The value of market research is that it gives insights and helps our clients to solve problems and achieve their business goals," says Ellen Ng, research director of Synovate.
For Ms Ng, one of the best examples of this was when she worked on a project for a retail catering business which wanted to attract more customers and increase sales. "We told them our findings and made recommendations, which they soon implemented," she recalls. "Within a year, they had achieved double-digit growth, which certainly proved the value of our work."
Ms Ng joined Synovate (then known as Asia Market Intelligence) in 1997, after she had completed a year's stint as a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. "I had studied mathematics and statistics, and wanted to find a job that made use of that learning," she says. "Also, I wanted to do something which combined analytical skills with the chance to deal with clients and meet new people."
It is essential to be extremely efficient and able to perform well when under pressure
She points out a researcher must be ready to face certain challenges. One is the need to work long hours, which can mean regular 12-hour days and sometimes even having to stay overnight during peak seasons. "It is essential to be extremely efficient and able to perform well when under pressure," she says. On one occasion, Ms Ng worked 20 hours non-stop, went home at 5am, and was back in the office by 10am in order to complete a project on time.
Newcomers to the field soon learn about the importance of client service. This requires maintaining integrity and authority as a researcher, while providing the information a customer needs. Clearly that may not always be what the customer hopes or expects to hear, so researchers must also be adept at explaining different scenarios.
Nowadays, Ms Ng gets particular satisfaction from the management and coaching aspects of her job. She still works on projects and, usually, half the day is spent with clients and doing research. The rest of the time is taken up with internal meetings, management issues, drafting proposals and writing reports.
After nine years in the profession, Ms Ng still prefers to be a generalist dealing with a variety of clients, rather than an in-house researcher working for just one company. "It's also better to be a profit centre than a cost centre," she adds.
Essential qualities for a market researcher are curiosity and common sense. It also helps to keep closely in touch with what's happening locally and around the world, since this will inevitably have a bearing on strategic recommendations and on what clients are interested in pursuing. Candidates with a background in marketing or business have an advantage, but degree holders in any discipline will be considered. The trend towards globalisation is likely to bring more regional projects, which will make good communication skills even more vital.
Synovate currently has 600 qualitative research specialists and over 2,000 research professionals in 50 countries. There are off-site meetings every year for them to get together and share experiences.
Ms Ng points out that researchers should be ready to work hard at the start of their careers and be prepared to handle their share of the more routine tasks. She explains that this is all part of learning the business and will help to determine how high they eventually climb.
Essential qualities for market researchersCommon sense
Ability to multi-task
Sound interpersonal and communication skills
Due to the rapid growth of the mainland's economy, there will be increased demand on market research in China. Ms Ng says, a number of project managers from Hong Kong are working in the company's mainland offices already. She believes that experienced researchers can bring a global perspective, which is always important and, so far, is an area in which mainland researchers still lag behind.