In running a business, you may be more or less conscious of your limitations–you know what you know, you’re pretty sure of what you don’t know, you’re worried about what you’re completely unaware of but need to know. Rather than operating in a vacuum or in denial, you can use business research as a tool to aid in making decisions to confidently direct a thriving, viable trade. Business research, also called market research, is a tool or process of pulling together information germane to running your operations intelligently.
Market research can answer questions for a variety of issues, from getting a grip on industry trends, determining new products to develop and deliver to the market, or deciding on which site to locate an outlet, to better understanding what it takes to satisfy customers to keep them loyal to your business.
Use secondary data about an industry or market as an effective way to gain a clearer lay of the land, or to lay groundwork for more detailed research work later. Look up U.S. Census data for general population demographics or trade publications for industry trends. Use resources within your community for more localized data. For example, businesses in Houston can look up the Houston Business Archive of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas or the Greater Houston Partnership that includes the Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development.
Sometimes your organization will face problems too specific to find answers in the public sphere; you’ll need to conduct primary research. Primary research comprises "ex post facto" studies, such as observation research or opinion surveys, and experimental designs that set up a "lab" trial to look for alternatives to the current assumption you may be operating under. The research may take the guise of qualitative work, such as a small number of in-depth interviews or focus groups to get a deeper understanding of a problem, or quantitative work that projects outcomes.
The information uncovered in your search should shed light on the questions management needs answers to, but it won’t decide the course of action for you. You still need to weigh the evidence provided by the market research against internal financial and operations data, plus your industry experience, business acumen, even intuition to steer your business in the right direction.
As you look up secondary data or conduct primary research, bear in mind that errors can blunt the effectiveness of the tool and actually do more harm than good. Planning errors can sabotage the project by trying to solve the wrong problem, or with bad survey design. Collection errors can survey the wrong audience, ask the wrong questions or record inaccurate answers. Analytical error can creep in with the wrong statistical tools that merely manipulate the response data rather than discover meaning. And reporting error can introduce bias that misconstrues the information based on preconceived notions rather than revealing what the facts actually mean.