Fall is the Marketing Research Conference season, bringing many opportunities to learn new ideas, meet new people, and expand your knowledge of our profession. Over the years, I’ve attended quite of few conferences and I have noticed that at almost every conference, there is a presentation that touches on the topic of “partnering with research suppliers”. Each time, excellent presenters (both client-side and marketing-research-company side) lay out the case for how to partner, the importance of partnering, and the advantages of these partnerships.
But, if we know how to build a partnership, why it is important, and what the advantages are of doing so, why is the topic constantly on conference agendas? And, why aren’t close partnerships practiced more often?
First, to review, partnerships between clients and research companies have huge advantages for both clients and suppliers. For clients, a partner who knows their business can offer true insights that a “stranger” may not perceive. Partners have a vested interest in each other’s businesses and therefore will always provide sharp attention to issues and only the highest quality of work. For suppliers, especially smaller firms, having a client that provides a dependable stream of work is instrumental in guiding resource planning. Suppliers also benefit by gaining more knowledge of the clients’ business, which means they deliver more impactful results, and create higher client loyalty.
So, if partnering is so mutually beneficial, why don’t we see more of it? What are the barriers? Each party bears some responsibility, and having worked on both sides, I have some thoughts on each.
For clients, the main barriers are time, fear, and budget. Forming true partnerships with suppliers takes time and commitment. You need to take the time to train and teach your suppliers about your business, your industry, your processes, your organization, etc. You need to convince your bosses that this investment of time and resources will pay off in the long run. The second barrier is fear, primarily fear of losing control. Marketers in client organizations have careers to manage. Some feel maintaining control over suppliers by rationing information helps them maintain their power. Some keep suppliers at arm’s length in managing research projects to ensure they (and not the supplier) will get the credit for the results of the research. Finally, in some organizations, budgetary issues are a barrier. Some companies insist on getting multiple bids on projects and then take the lowest bid. Other companies, to try to save money, create an adversarial relationship with suppliers to push them to provide the lowest prices possible.
For suppliers, the barriers to creating partnerships are short term thinking, laziness, and lack of confidence. Many small research companies are managed to meeting quarterly sales goals. With such pressure, it is often easier to provide clients with proposals at low prices without the value-added services that would be provided given a partnership relationship. Clients, for the reasons above, are all too willing to accept such minimal proposals. Many suppliers are too lazy to learn about their clients’ businesses. Whereas clients may not have the time or inclination to teach and train suppliers, there is no excuse for suppliers to not research their clients. Finally, many suppliers just don’t have the confidence that their organization can actually be a partner to their clients, and thus don’t ask for or invite partnership status.
OK, so what do we do? The answers are:
- Client organizations need to invest a little extra time and effort into more fully educating their suppliers about the underlying objectives and issues in their research. By doing so, the quality of the work and the depth of the insights will improve, while costs should come down. Clients need to remember that the low bid is not always the best bid.
- Suppliers need to convince their clients that their goal is to make the client the hero, to make them look good. And they need to pay more than lip service to their desire to be partners with clients. They need to approach the sales process having done some in-depth research to demonstrate that they know much about the client’s business, industry, category, processes, etc.
Overall, it takes a frank discussion between Clients and Researchers to determine a mutually beneficial relationship where each party thrives. The key to such a discussion of course is Trust. When each party trusts that the other has their best interests at heart, then a true symbiotic partnership is possible and there are no limits on what can be accomplished.
When I stop seeing this topic on Marketing Research Conference agendas, I’ll know we have finally started to form true partnerships between client and supplier.