Pathways to Growth

Meet the 'Research Call'

For years, I’ve been talking about, writing about and, yes, some might even say nagging about a tactic that continues not only to deliver, but to dazzle.

The focus of my attention is the research call. It is nothing more, and nothing less than an interview, ideally in person, with a key individual in a specific market you wish to penetrate. Interview targets fall into four categories: thought leaders, providers of related goods and services, likely buyers, and competitors. Within those categories, you might interview a product specialist, an association leader, a funder, a category disrupter or even a competitor.

This humble yet powerful tool lets growth-minded firms gain critical insight into target industries and niches. The intelligence becomes the raw material used to formulate and execute a growth strategy.

The process is deceptively simple. Once you’ve identified those you wish to interview through research and brainstorming, you pick up the phone — yes the phone — and make a call. Other than to competitors, the message is fairly straightforward. You introduce yourself and explain that you are growing in a particular industry and believe they would be valuable to interview to help inform your strategy. To a competitor, the approach might be, “I’m aware of your focus on this particular industry. Perhaps we can get acquainted and share perspectives on the industry. We might have some synergies.”

Why would someone part with an hour of their time? The reasons vary — curiosity, ego, love of the subject, human helpfulness, or potential information in return. Regardless of the motivation, over time your increasing persuasion skills not only result in more interviews, but prepare you for a future where you need to persuade a potential buyer to part with large sums to purchase your services! This is a beautiful byproduct of the method.

The idea of gaining market knowledge through relevant personal contacts is nothing new. I discovered the value of this approach many years ago, named it, and formalized it by identifying the key questions that a research call interview should cover:

  • What issues do people in your market face?
  • What associations do they join; what events do they attend?
  • What publications/sites do they read?
  • Who are their thought leaders/influencers?
  • What are the most important technologies affecting your industry, i.e. artificial intelligence, blockchain, cyber, etc?
  • Who are a couple other individuals you suggest I interview?

Beyond these, the interview can be customized with questions specifically related to the specific market and your firm’s strategy.

You might notice the questions are designed to uncover market-level intelligence, not information specifically about the interviewee. This is important when you’re interviewing current clients and other likely buyers so you don’t come across as selling. If the interviewee is not a likely buyer, you can ask both about the market as well as them. Also notice that research calls are made in specific industries or other buyer groups. They don’t work very well in a nonspecific (generalist) market.


New applications

For me, the research call is a gift that keeps on giving. Years after I first discovered its potential, I came to understand its capacity to promote culture change, because research calls can be made by individuals at every level in the firm.

A simple research call scorecard creates a metric to help quantify an individual’s contribution to growth activities. Think about it as the opposite of hanging out a shingle and, as the saying goes, aggressively waiting for the phone to ring.

As members of your firm fan out across various marketplaces making research calls, they become visible to those you wish to influence. They come to understand your buyer group at a granular level. They acquire wide and deep knowledge of the target industry.

All this helps them achieve the rank of thought leaders, which makes them more attractive to your buyer group. Issues uncovered turn into innovations. Distribution channels that are discovered lead to channel alignment and growth. With access to proven experts, your buyers will frequently seek their assistance with business matters that go beyond the balance sheet.

Does it really work like this? You bet it does, says Don McIntosh, CEO of Rea & Associates, a 13-office CPA firm based in New Philadelphia, Ohio.

“Gale introduced us to the research call when we were transitioning from being a generalist firm to moving into specific industry niches, and expanding from compliance to consulting,” Don explains. “The research calls give us a better idea of what markets we should be in and what types of services we should be providing. They also make our people more well-known in the marketplace, helping us build relationships and trust.”

Don emphasizes that the interviews are not opportunities to sell: “Nobody wants to be sold. If at the end of the visit a potential client asks how they can work with us, I tell them that’s not really the purpose of the interview. It’s a discussion for another time.”

The practice has become so ingrained in the firm’s culture that performing research calls is a key consideration in promotion.

“The more of these you do, the more you learn and the more valuable you become to your clients and potential clients,” says Don.

With its sights set on the building industry, Rea & Associates recently hired a construction specialist/former accountant. Within three months he completed 60 research calls and the results have been exceptional.

Adds Don, “The research call is phenomenal — it’s become a vital tool in revenue growth and the development of our people.”

Thanks, Don — I couldn’t have said it better myself!