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When Do Market Research Clients and Suppliers Work Best Together?

A recent Greenbook blog article posted by @Angry_MR_Client, “How to Make an MR Client Angry in 7 Easy Steps”, shares her frustration with items such as “underdeliver” and “make slides no one wants to read.”  Alas, the items listed are exactly the kind of all-too-common challenges that frustrate many market research clients.

But they also frustrate the suppliers.

Bearing in mind that there are literally over a thousand market research suppliers worldwide, most seek to do good work.  When they under-deliver, it is not intentional.  And they’re not rejoicing in slide creation parties.

So where is the disconnect?

As @edward04 commented on the Greenbook post: It takes two to tango.

Part of the challenge we have in market research is that suppliers often walk a very fuzzy line between being an outsourcing partner (takes on a project, completes start-to-end, full authority and responsibility) and being a staff extension (reports to the client, gets approval at major milestones, numerous points of shared responsibility).  MR agencies often are hired, and want to act, as an outsourcing provider—but in reality, it is a mixed role (especially compared to other outsourcing models). Not clear why this is an issue? Consider this example from the world of employee management:

I ran a market research agency for 13 years, and managed lots of researchers in that time.  I learned early on that employees cannot be successful if they are given responsibility, but no authority. It just doesn’t work.  Employees who can’t make decisions or solve problems related to their areas of responsibility can never be effective. The level of responsibility assigned to an employee must be matched by an equal level of authority to act.

In the case of market research engagements, I see a lot of cases where the client and the supplier have confusing or unspecified divisions of responsibility and authority.  Frustration for both sides is the result.

Is the Market Research Client-Supplier Relationship Unusual?

Clearly, there are always tensions between buyers and sellers—of any kind.  Buyers want more value, sellers want more margin. Buyers want it faster/more convenient, sellers want scalable processes. The list could go on and on.  And such conflicts are not all bad: a little constructive tension serves the purpose of making sure clients and suppliers help each other evolve.

As for articles such as the recent Greenbook post? Sure, it is fine to vent—for both clients and market research suppliers. Nothing wrong with that!  But the real issue is this: how do we step away from recycled platitudes about client-supplier relationships and make real change?  When do market research agencies and clients work best together? Perhaps when both parties precisely specify and agree to the relationship model: outsourced or staff extension.


 [The book, How to Hire & Manage Market Research Agencies, is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions]

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Kathryn Korostoff

Kathryn Korostoff is founder and lead instructor at Research Rockstar. Over the past 25 years, she has personally directed more than 600 primary market research projects and published over 100 bylined articles in magazines. She is also a professor at Boston University, where she teaches grad students how to analyze and report quantitative data.

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