Healthy Economy Innovation

Know Thy Customer

Teams of students led by faculty mentors design and conduct research that start-ups or established firms can use to inform their marketing plans and guide product development.

From the executive suite to the equestrian stable, OSU student researchers are helping Northwest businesses better serve their customers.

Companies as diverse as electronics manufacturer Hewlett-Packard and peat producer Sun Gro Horticulture are looking to the College of Business for research-based services to enhance their customers’ satisfaction. When HP wanted to improve user comfort with its digital projectors, and Sun Gro wished to expand its customer base for an innovative horse-bedding material, both turned to a year-old enterprise called Close to the Customer — C2C for short. Teams of students led by faculty mentors design and conduct research that start-ups or established firms can use to inform their marketing plans and guide product development.

“We help them focus,” says C2C project manager Nikki Brown, who earned her master’s in applied anthropology from OSU.

Although the college’s Department of Marketing helped fund the launch of C2C, Brown expects the fee-for-service enterprise to become completely self-sustaining soon. In fact, it has been swamped with requests for services, from existing corporations to start-ups and nonprofits. About 25 student researchers have worked on 14 projects so far, spanning fields from health care to higher education. Even OSU’s own Weatherford Residential College for aspiring entrepreneurs was a topic of study, sponsored by a grant from the Kauffman Foundation.

The best thing about C2C, says student Lacey Gable, is its “holistic” nature. “I contributed to every aspect of the projects, from start to finish,” the international marketing senior explains. For her first C2C project, for instance, her team was seeking insights into health-care consumers’ attitudes and behaviors. Gable not only helped design and conduct surveys, lead focus groups, and produce PowerPoints, but she also analyzed and summarized data. “It was the whole deal,” she says.

Taking research all the way is the project’s greatest strength for student participants, Brown believes. “The key point of learning is to find out what the data mean,” she says. “I’m seeing a lot of light-bulb moments.”

Light bulbs are turning on for the clients, too. HP, for instance, learned that the digital projector’s packaging and accessories had a big impact on user friendliness. “We were impressed with the online processes for tracking projector distribution and use around the campus that the student researchers generated,” says HP’s Steve Brown, vice president for Collaborative Networked Solutions. “The presentation of findings was very thorough and well-organized and included insightful comments from the interviews.”

As for Sun Gro, North America’s largest peat company, student interviews with horse owners and stable hands are filling critical information gaps.

Getting that strategic information upfront, C2C stresses, can help reduce risk in decision-making. “Less risk means fewer blunders like Ford’s infamous Edsel automobile,” Brown observes.

Minimizing mistakes helps maximize profits, whether the market niche is personal transportation, high-tech video equipment or even new-age livestock accessories.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.