Mirror, mirror ... Featured

9:48am EDT July 22, 2002

At this brief moment, the conference room at Campos Market Research stands oddly quiet and empty, except for Texas transplant Yvonne Campos, founder and president of this downtown Pittsburgh-based market research firm, and her interviewer.

This room usually bustles with customers of the firm’s clients as Campos and her staff skillfully mine for information and feedback that will help her clients grow their companies or adapt to change. Usually, her clients and others sit in a room on the other side of the two-way mirror that graces one wall, quietly taking it all in.

On this particular day, she looks into that mirror only at herself — a driven, dynamic entrepreneur who has built up a sizable and respectable market research firm in almost 14 years, as she contemplates the future of her own business and how she might get there. Her conclusion: If she wants to launch into a new era of aggressive growth, she’d better practice what she preaches.

So began an odyssey that brought careful reflection, vision and a healthy dose of good old market research — from an outside firm, no less — in shaping the Campos Market Research of the future.

The cold, hard truth

Without question, taking a hard look at your business isn’t an easy task. Ron Sofranko, an entrepreneur who started Red River Barbecue in 1986, was virtually broke by 1991 and on the brink of bankruptcy when he finally took the time to reflect and plan.

“I had no cash, I was $500,000 in the hole, there was a recession and I had personal guarantees on everything,” Sofranko told SBN in 1997. Pulling his company out of the slide meant taking an honest, painful look at his business and placing trust in outside industry professionals who could evaluate the business objectively and make recommendations that its owner might not be willing to consider or able to recognize.

Make no mistake — Campos Market Research wasn’t in danger of failing. But management knew that planning for substantial growth relied on getting an unvarnished picture of the business as it was and where the opportunities and obstacles existed. That included capturing the honest attitudes of its clients.

“We do the same kinds of things for some of our clients,” says Campos in her gentile hint of a southern drawl. But Campos realized that turning that same process on her own company would have severe and inherent limitations.

Campos founded Campos Market Research in 1986, a few years after coming to Pittsburgh to work for a company that established an office in the city to do market research for Heinz. She realized that no other firms in Pittsburgh offered market research services on a comparable level to those available in other similarly sized cities.

“I always wondered why Pittsburgh wasn’t on the map,” Campos says.

She decided to do independent consulting and eventually formed her own research company, which she has built into perhaps the most recognizable of its kind in the city, serving both small and large clients with its market research services. Over 13-plus years, the client base has been shifting from smaller businesses to include larger, more sophisticated companies.

That has presented opportunities, as well as challenges.

“When you’re as successful as that and you have a lot of clients coming at you with projects, you can be reactive,” says Andrew Field, the firm’s executive vice president.

Campos realized that some restructuring was in order a couple of years ago and began to build a management team that would support a more ambitious plan for the business. She hired a vice president of operations who could help devise a new structure for management and identify human resources needs. During that period, she hired Field, a former vice president of marketing for TCI, as well.

The management team huddled and decided that many of the firm’s clients likely held views which, if uncovered and articulated, could reveal important market intelligence for the company.

“Equally important to any other measure, if not more, is a gauge from your customers right from their mouths of their perceptions of your organization,” says Field. “The greatest favor a customer can do for an organization is to tell the truth.”

Campos and her team decided to uncover some of those truths by employing the same methods they use when compiling information for their clients. They wanted to gauge overall satisfaction among clients, what they thought of the data they received and the analysis that was provided.

They were seeking comments about service and what could be done to improve it. And they wanted to gain a sense of what kinds of consultative services their clients might be considering purchasing and how well-equipped they thought Campos Market Research might be to provide them.

But uncovering those views would not be as simple as doing quantitative research through a large-scale telephone survey of its clients. And Campos’ employees certainly couldn’t do it themselves. Campos realized that doing the job effectively would take qualitative research, conducted by highly trained researchers who could probe clients carefully to get them to reveal the most candid impressions and opinions that they harbored about the firm.

But using her own researchers, she finally concluded, could impose a built-in bias. That’s when she decided to seek outside assistance.

“You’re in much better shape with a messenger who has no ax to grind,” explains Field.

Choosing a researcher

Choosing an appropriate firm to do its research wasn’t an easy chore, even for a company that has extensive contacts in the industry. Campos Market Research does work for other market research companies and, conversely, has others do work for it, so it had no shortage of candidates for the job.

But the list was whittled down to just a handful after the initial cut. The Campos team needed someone who could be objective and had no vested interest one way or the other. That eliminated most local companies.

They set a budget of $10,000 and needed to identify a firm that would complete the task within that limitation. Although Campos Market Research could have saved money by choosing a local company and doing some of the work in-house, it eventually settled on a Washington, D.C. company.

The work itself

The Campos Marketing Research team chose a random cross-section of clients to undergo intensive qualitative interviews designed to uncover their attitudes toward the company and discern what kinds of market research services they might be seeking in the future.

They chose a mix of clients that included both small and large firms with whom they had done a variety of projects. They picked current and recent clients, as well as others for whom they hadn’t done work for quite a while. They made no conscious effort to exclude an account for which things hadn’t always gone smoothly.

About 30 companies were interviewed.

What they learned

Their clients, they found, wanted more from them. The interviews time and again revealed that their clients weren’t simply interested in good research. They didn’t simply expect to find out how their product or service is viewed.

They were looking for Campos Market Research to be more proactive, to bring the data to life and help them with their planning processes and strategies.

“The key thing we learned,” says Campos, “is that our clients want us to take the key role in leading the market research area.”

In other words, they didn’t want the researcher to collect the data and simply hand it over. Companies, they found, are looking to market researchers to take the process a step further, to look at the data, interpret it, and, in many cases, make recommendations about what strategies they might implement to produce the desired results.

“They want us to understand who they are and what they’re facing,” says Field.

That realization has opened up new possibilities, says Campos, presenting the potential to become more hands-on with its clients in the marketing process. She also sees the danger in squandering those opportunities that the research confirms are available.

“Our clients want us to take the lead role,” says Campos. “Not that we didn’t know that, but to see it and hear it makes a lot of difference. It makes it clear, very concrete to me, that they’re waiting for us to take the lead. If we don’t do that, then shame on us.”

Brand awareness

A pleasant surprise was that the company’s own brand image seemed strong.

“There’s truly a core of people who know Yvonne,” says Field.

But both he and Campos realize that a definable image can be a handicap as well as an asset. If you’re recognized when you walk through the door, it could be as a company that does one or two things well, but is not necessarily associated with other services you might be able to provide.

“Anything that’s a strong brand or position locks you in,” says Field. “General Motors has a hard time saying ‘We stand for something new,’ simply because they’ve been there so long.”

Despite the possible limitations a recognizable brand may encounter, Campos sees it as a tremendous asset that can be leveraged to sell expanded services.

“It’s a great opportunity to get in the door and say, ‘This is what we’re doing now,’” says Campos. “Now, we’ve got to create a new message that goes with that.”

More demanding clients

Campos says it’s too early to talk about the specifics of the services the company is considering offering, but it is a fairly safe bet that they will include those that take advantage of state-of-the-art telecommunications technology.

A review of market research companies reveals that many are offering services such as Internet interviews as research tools.

Globalization of business has changed practically everything about the way companies conduct commerce, and that means a market research company that expects to grow will almost certainly have to be well versed in international business. The Campos management team, Campos says, realizes that the way it structures its business in the future and the services it offers hinge on the changing needs of its existing and prospective clients, a mix that promises to lean more toward larger companies with more complex needs.

Those clients aren’t going to be looking for the traditional ways of judging their positions and potential in the marketplace. More than likely, they will be seeking expertise that will bring the data to life and help them make critical decisions about how they conduct their business.

“What we really found is that data is looked at as a commodity,” says Campos. “You can get data anywhere, you can buy data anywhere. It’s really what you learn from it that makes a difference, and that’s where we’re trying to differentiate ourselves.”

A confirmation

In the end, the research Campos Market Research commissioned revealed no great surprises or secrets. Its clients want more, and the company is putting together the corporate structure and the services to provide it.

What the research did do, however, is what it is supposed to do, to a great extent. It confirmed many of the assumptions that Campos had formed through her direct and indirect experience with her company’s clients.

“It really encouraged us and validated it for us,” says Campos, and did so, she points out, with a reliable precision that the company could offer its clients but not itself.

“You just can’t do it for yourself,” says Campos, “You just can’t.”

How to reach: Campos Market Research,

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is associate editor at SBN.