Your next business task has landed: build a compelling story to help guide a change in current strategy, that is based on third-party sources and research.
For many small- and medium-sized businesses, this can be a big challenge. Without business research budgets to purchase specific and detailed industry reports, you are forced to look online for data and trends. If your business is unique, sources can be hard to locate, and may not directly apply to your business. So how can you best tackle this challenge?
Our advice for that question stems from a recent Harvard Business Review article called “Business Forecasts Are Reliably Wrong – Yet Still Valuable.” The article itself provides references to 20 different forecasts that showcase high-level trends predicted for 2022.
Two key takeaways from the article:
- While many of the individual forecasts may not end up being true, the information behind the forecasts can be great clues for business decisions.
- By looking at many different resources, you aren’t putting all of your eggs in one resource basket.
“Despite being reliably incorrect, savvy leaders can find strategic value from forecasts. When reviewed in aggregate, they capture the zeitgeist.”-- Co-Authors Martin Reeves, Suvasini Ramaswamy, and Annelies O’Dea, Boston Consulting Group
Focusing on underlying trends and key issues can help you extrapolate insights.
We think that taking this same type of approach to your research for new business strategies can be just as helpful. Focus on the trends and key issues that may be driving the predictions. Specifically, we recommend that you explore the following sources of both internal and external information:
INTERNAL – Have Deep Dive Conversations with Sales
Sales team members usually love to talk about their work and successes, (and lament about their challenges). The reality is that their on-going communication with customers means they have their finger on the pulse of what may be shifting externally – and they’ll see it much sooner than third party research could possibly be published on a particular trend or topic. We advise that you find several key, successful sales team members and ask them questions like:
- “What are the biggest areas of growth and opportunities your customers are focused on right now? How is that different from their focus in the last couple of years?”
- “What is keeping your customers up at night about their business? How have those issues evolved?”
- “What changes do you see with customers in the types of needs they have? How are those changes affecting their requests, and what they want to receive from us?”
- “Are your customers requesting new products/services – either ones that we might not offer yet, or ones we offer that might be different from what they purchased before?”
INTERNAL – Loop in Finance for Their Insights
Finance teams may not be talking to customers on a regular basis the way Sales is. However, most finance teams are adept at dissecting customer data and looking for trends within your existing customer base. We advise that you set up an official meeting with Finance to dig into issues like:
- “Which segments of our customers are growing the most?”
- “Which segments of our customers are shrinking?”
- “Which segments of our customers are steady state?”
- “How have sales shifted? Is there an uptick in one product or service over another, or a decline in overall sales in product or service areas?”
TIP: The key is to look at segments of customers, and not just individual customer names. In some cases, you may have to do ad-hoc analysis to determine the segments.
EXTERNAL – Look Online for Emerging Business Trends and Predictions
Even if you don’t have dollars to spend on research or third-party research reporting, you can still gain important insights from existing research done by others. Jump on your favorite browser and start searching.
Key things the article suggests you look for:
- What do experts believe is important and likely enough to forecast?
- Where do they agree, and more interestingly, where do they disagree?
- Even if forecasts are specifically wrong, what do they indicate about the underlying trends and pivotal issues?
TIPS: During your search, make sure to try out many different search terms so you can find valid articles or data that relate to your business. Also, be specific in your search terms to save time from scouring hundreds of generic articles. Better to be specific with search terms and then end those searches quickly, than to wade through irrelevant results that do not contain what you are seeking.
EXTERNAL – Include Business Statistics in Your Research
Beyond business articles, sometimes you need to find general business statistics. Instead of relying only on business articles for those stats, (although you will find some along your way), sites like Statista are great resources that provide broad statistics that you can quickly browse by a variety of statistics types and industries.
TIP: Think about what kinds of statistics might support your challenge, or data points that could support the strategy you are working on to solve it.
Pulling It All Together
Once you have completed your research, take time to look for the overarching themes that you see coming through the individual research sources. Then link your themes from your collective sources with references to those individual articles or stats or internal conversations, to come up with your major potential strategy change suggestions.
TIP: Don’t be surprised if your research has you modifying your original strategy. Be open to what you uncover, and let that research guide your decision.
If you work quickly and effectively, you should be able to assemble your strategic insights in only 1-2 weeks. We hope these simple steps help you develop a streamlined and effective method for compiling and reviewing forecasts and predictions to support your strategic thinking.
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