Research is a difficult area for most small and medium sized firms, particularly those started by entrepreneurial management and focused on one product or service. For a start, structured research programmes involving outside agencies are expensive – many research companies will bother with a project, unless it is worth a minimum of £10,000 to them. Secondly, many growing companies have a poor opinion of research, with many managers feeling that their gut instincts and closeness to their customers mean they know their market inside out without having to bring in the boffins.

But, as Tim Blandford, a partner with research agency 2CV, observes: “It’s very obvious that smaller companies don’t do much research, while blue chip companies do. The question is, did the big brands get big by spending money to understand their brands and how are they positioned in the marketplace.”

Blandford argues that smaller companies should analyse what they are doing instinctively, and seeing whether professional advice could help them grow their business.
2CV has recently conducted a project for upmarket wine retailer Bibendum. Anne Fenwick, Bibendum’s director of marketing, says the project aimed to better understand how customers perceived its advertising and other marketing materials. “It allowed us to better segment our customers and understand the different levels within the customer base, and better target our marketing communications,” she says. “Market research is cost-effective when you look at it in the long term, but it can seem an expensive investment in the short-term.

Research doesn't have to be massively time consuming or expensive. Designing a simple feedback form for customers to fill-in is one easy way to get responses. Most companies now do these online or via email and so you don't even have to spend the cost of paper.

Another way to improve your products and services is to incentivise and organise your staff to get more involved in the development of products. Your staff are your front line and will see and hear many things which you might miss as a business owner. Simple props like ideas boxes can also yield great results. Also, if you offer prizes for the best ideas then you might encourage people to spend more time thinking about the business. Other methods include having brainstorming sessions and debriefing meetings that encourage communication about the product.