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Apprentice season is upon us once again. Lord Sugar has donned his moodiest face and his pointy finger, in order to play the panto villain on our screens every Wednesday. Meanwhile, a bunch of hopeful candidates pack twelve weeks’ worth of very fancy business attire and inappropriate lounging wear into the teeny-tiniest of suitcases. Once a week a discombobulated voice phones through to The Apprentice ‘luxury’ accommodation to wake the candidates and tell them that it’s 4am and the cars will be with them in twenty minutes. ‘Twenty minutes’ later it’s broad daylight and the eager contenders have had a full hair and make-over, the likes of which is only seen backstage at Paris Fashion Week.

I mock, but in order to be truly authentic, I must admit that I LOVE The Apprentice.

One thing I find a bit confusing though, why is it that Apprentice candidates seem to be the only people in the word who’ve never watched The Apprentice before?

For example, I have often found myself shouting: “DON’T IGNORE THE MARKET RESEARCH!” at the telly, feeling slightly enraged. How is it that these aspirants (who claim to be the world’s most passionate fans of the bearded one) haven’t yet grasped that during the challenge that includes the market research piece, the actual market research activity is one of the most fundamentally crucial elements of the ‘business’ that they are doing? Lord Sugar has gone on about it enough over the last decade; you certainly don’t need to be Karren Brady to know that this is definitely not information to be discounted.

Perhaps this willful and deliberate ignoring happens, in every single series, because they get caught up in the moment.

To be fair, developing new products is exciting, and the last thing you want to have to do is start all over again when you find out your market thinks your idea is crap.

This is why it’s essential to find out what your dream client thinks about your whizz-bang new idea BEFORE you invest a whole heap of time and money developing the concept, creating the branding, setting up web pages etc. Otherwise, it’ll be a blue Monday when you finally notice that your audience doesn’t want the thing you’ve developed, and you realise you’ve wasted all that time and money.

Proper, formal market research is very expensive. There are some incredible agencies out there who will research the market, look at what’s already available, create a market position, run focus-group testing, etc, etc. And, this works really well for, say, Mars, Incorporated. But, it costs a titanic-sized amount of cash.

However, there is a simpler way that the small business owner can conduct market research too (for free, or the price of a bottle of wine, if you are of a generous nature), and that’s what I want to share with you today.

In fact, for our clients, we’ve got this down to seven stages, and here they are:

1) Identify a handful of people who match the description you’ve already created of your ideal client. These people don’t have to be actual clients, but they can be. You could ask your friends and family, but anyone who loves you will find giving you negative feedback more challenging (unless it’s your Uncle Frank, who is, let’s face it, a killjoy). Crucially, don’t simply ask your friends because they are easy to pin down, and it’s nice to have an excuse to go to the pub. Your favourite girlgang may not be from the same tribe as your ideal clients and, while trying to be helpful, their feedback could be totally off-base, drawn from their own, frankly irrelevant, opinions. This will send you careering wildly off course.

2) First of all, ask each of your victims volunteers about the problems they face in the area of your business. How have they tried to resolve them? What can they tell you about why this is a problem? Which elements of the problem cause them the most grief? What would be their ideal way to get the problem resolved?

3) While you’re at it, It’s a good opportunity to find out what sort of marketing most appeals to this type of person. Which social media platforms are they most like to interact with? Are they a member of any local groups? What do they read or listen to?

4) Say thank you and hand over the bottle of wine, exuding gratitude.

5) Go off and use what you’ve found out to create a written description of a service or product that resolves your potential customer’s big problem, based on what your handful of people have said. You might get some ‘red herring’ material from one or two people that could send you off-track but where you get a consensus, use that. You can also cross-reference this with any details hiding in the records you might have kept of past sales conversations.

6) Go back to your volunteers and run what you have created past them. Get their honest feedback. Ask them what they’d be prepared to pay for a service such as this and, if they’d buy it. If they love what you’ve put together you might even make some sales at this point, but, obviously, don’t actively try to sell as part of this conversation, these people are doing you a favour, you don’t want to make them uncomfortable.

7) The most important step: use their final feedback to amend what you’ve put together so that it accurately reflects what they say they’d want to buy and the price they’d pay for it. You might find out at this stage that the price they are prepared to pay means your product is not actually viable. If this is the case, it makes sense to go off and ask some other people (again, not your spouse or best mate) who are in the target market, to find out what they think and confirm or reject the opinions of the first group.

Only once you’ve been through all these steps and you are convinced that what you’ve put together in your written brief matches what your target market actually wants, should you start thinking about making the product available for sale. In most cases, you’ll then sell a few, get more feedback and make more changes according to the experience of your first customers.

And, don’t forget <dons pointy finger>: we are ‘looking for workers, not shirkers!’

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