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Clayton MBA students research market, help local businesses

Photo by Jim Massara
Clients, students and teacher from Clayton State’s marketing-research class. Left to right: Vicky Carver-Sparks, PEI; Fred Snow; Dr. Beverly Wright; Will Knudson; and Alyssa Fleury, PEI.

Photo by Jim Massara Clients, students and teacher from Clayton State’s marketing-research class. Left to right: Vicky Carver-Sparks, PEI; Fred Snow; Dr. Beverly Wright; Will Knudson; and Alyssa Fleury, PEI.

Vicki Carver-Sparks needed marketing research for her Stockbridge logistics company but didn’t have a lot of money to spend on it. So she got a vice president of a multi-national auto-supply corporation and a national account manager for a well-known computer accessory company to do it for her.

That may not make sense — unless you know that the VP and account manager are both MBA students at Clayton State University. And it cost Carver-Sparks almost nothing but time.

This marriage of need and talent was brokered through Beverly Wright’s marketing-research class at Clayton State. Taught Saturdays at the university’s Peachtree City campus, the class attracts students who are already established in their careers but who need to round out their business chops.

Small outfits like Carver-Sparks’ company, PEI, contact Wright at Clayton State’s College of Business to become “clients,” and the students provide their research services under Wright’s guidance.

It’s a win-win situation: Students gain experience, and clients gain research. In PEI’s case, that research could have cost as much as $11,000 if purchased from a marketing pro, according to Wright — and it’s just as valid.

Among the MBA students who worked with PEI were Fred Snow of Sharpsburg, a vice president of after-market products for Hella, Inc., a German auto-supply company; and Will Knudson of Peachtree City, a national account manager with Kensington Computer Group, which makes accessories for PCs and Macs.

Why would two men already established in their careers be trying to get an MBA that involves volunteer work for someone else? Both say it’s about rounding out their skill set and, as Snow puts it, preparing to “grab the next rung on the ladder.”

“There are certain things you just don’t get on the job,” adds Knudson.

The students’ research was drawn from a 25-question online survey sent to PEI’s clients from the last three years. With PEI’s Alyssa Fleury of Locust Grove — herself a Clayton State grad — as a contact person, the students crafted questions asking what PEI’s clients liked and didn’t like.

Businesses who use outsiders to get information instead of trying to do it themselves are more likely to get honest answers, Wright says, because “the clients are going to tell them things they might not tell the clients.”

“They might not want to hurt your feelings because they’ve known you for a long time,” Carver-Sparks added.

What she learned about her customers both surprised her and “validated what my gut told me,” she says.

The surprises? Carver-Sparks says her customers apparently don’t care about “green,” or eco-friendly, services. And they want to stay in touch via e-mail while at the same time liking her personal service.

“I was moving toward making (PEI) process-oriented, moving people out of the process,” Carver-Sparks says. “That’s where my brain was. Then I find out that 95 percent of my customers use me because they can find a human voice, 24-7.”

So the personal customer service stays, but an iPhone app will be added as well. It was rolled out last week.

The students’ research also suggested that she emphasize how well her business moved trade-show displays, a long-time specialty of PEI, rather than “trying to be all things to all customers,” as Knudson puts it.

“They went to a lot of extra effort,” Carver-Sparks says of the research. “It wasn’t superficial at all. This is not a community college that’s just doing stuff for small business.”

Wright, who has taught at Clayton State for two years and has conducted classes like this for much of her last 12 years as a teacher, estimates that she’s matched about 50 clients through Clayton State with about 250 different students, many with professional profiles like Snow’s and Knudson’s.

Businesses wishing to access Clayton State MBA students’ expertise can contact Wright at beverlywright@clayton.edu to register as a client.