So I thought it might be helpful to preface the Berlin post with an explanation of this particular aspect of market research - a type of work I am happy to have given up for good in 1998 - well, in terms of interviewing direct competitors, certainly. It was becoming increasingly difficult to secure the companies' cooperation, and was pretty nerve-wracking most of the time, so I decided to quit while I was ahead...
Okay, here goes...
Readers may well be familiar with Pareto’s Principle, according to which 80% of the sales in any market are generated by just 20% of the companies trading in it. This led the MD of my old agency to conclude that the most accurate way to size a market was to go directly to the source of supply – namely, the competition. Marketing boasted in proposals that we routinely “broke down the doors” of 90% of competitor companies, which on a typical project with six key players equated to about five and a half of them. We always hoped it would be the half with the head.
|My friend Clare, doing a sterling impression of a spy!|
So why should competitors want to see us? Sometimes we could offer report summaries – these were well received, given the lack of published information available. But often we relied on the surprise factor and a pleasant manner. Occasionally, even as people tried to wriggle out of participating, their irrepressible sense of self-importance allowed key facts to slip out: “Do you realise that we are the leading supplier of chocolate enrobing equipment with a 70% share of the world market, so what can you possibly tell us that we don’t already know?” This gave me an opening to flatter them into submission: “Ah yes, but I’m sure you didn’t get to where you are today by resting on your laurels.”
As for how much we revealed upfront about the sponsors of such studies, we found that as little as possible worked best. Outright lying was banned, so weaselly half-truths became our stock-in-trade. On one study for a major kitchen and bedroom company, the sponsor was positioned as “a furniture supplier looking at the kitchen market”. If anyone had thought to ask whether our client was currently in the kitchen business, we had to say they were, but no one did. Clients already active in a market were sometimes tenuously described (though never by me!) as “investors”, or even “venture capitalists”, and there was much airy talk of “synergies” and “forging links with partners”.
The truth was that we did get refusals - from whole people even, though not necessarily whole companies. If say, the Sales Director of a competitor would not play ball, you would simply try the Marketing Director, who hopefully would not be sitting at the next desk, having overheard your failed attempt to recruit his colleague. Equally toe-curling were situations where you would ring the second person, and the one who just told you to get lost picked up their phone, having heard it ring as he was passing! Then, even assuming the second person agreed to meet you, there was still potential for things to implode if, on arrival at the company, you were introduced to the first colleague who turned you down - if he was more senior, he might well pull the plug on proceedings.
The most spectacular instance of this occurred on a job in Benelux. Following a refusal from the MD of the company in question, I managed to set up an interview with his elderly father, the Chairman and a softer target. Three quarters of the way through, the MD burst in, grabbed my questionnaire, tore it into tiny pieces and frogmarched me off the premises. Fortunately, my short term memory was spitting fire that day, and later, over a relaxing beer, I was able to piece together most of the information.
As if getting the cooperation of competitors were not challenging enough, we were urged to take photos of respondents and their building, to be used as illustrations in reports. In winter, it was often dark after an afternoon appointment, which meant taking the outdoor shot beforehand. This involved crouching behind a shrub at a discreet distance, but could backfire if the respondent happened to glance out of his window at that moment. At the very least this resulted in a bumpy start to the meeting, and at worst a replacement camera.
But competitor interviewing was by no means just about skulking in bushes and dodging difficult questions. Some of my best interviews ever were with companies who were happy to exchange views on an open basis. I once spent four hours squashed between a fridge and a Portaloo on an exhibition stand in Paris with the Sales & Marketing Director of a well-known glass manufacturer, and every time his assistant popped in to say he was wanted by customers, he shooed her away with an impatient wave, and returned to the absorbing task of crunching five year sales forecasts for curved shower doors.
On reflection, Marketing’s expression about “breaking down the doors” of competitors is perhaps a little strong. For sometimes they opened the door to us immediately, sometimes we had to knock quite hard first, and just occasionally we nipped in through a side window.
And as a foretaste of my next post, here is a photo of some truly momentous breaking down of things....