The 12 most important questions to ask when selecting a market research firm

So you’ve decided to hire a firm to conduct market research?

Great!  Now on to the hard part – how do you decide which firm to select as your research partner?

It’s easy to get intimidated when looking for research partners.  After all, the core of marketing research is scientific, beginning with the scientific method and extending into complex mathematics and experimentation.  Like most things that fall under science, it’s filled with unintuitive jargon, complex concepts and formulas, and a core scientific discipline – in this case, statistics.  (Sometimes you’ll even get the stereotypical big ego to match their many advanced degrees.)  They’ll all tell you that they’re the best at what they do – that they have the most innovative methods, the most versatile collection techniques, the most actionable insights.  That all sounds great, but how do you find the firm that’s the right fit and can help your company accomplish its objectives from the project?

Not to fear – we’ve created a comprehensive list of questions to ask and factors to consider before hiring a firm.  As with most things, this will require some intuition, and not all questions will apply in every case, but this article should serve as a solid guide to ensure a successful project and partnership.

1. Are they a true Marketing Research firm, or do they just play one on TV?  

Marketing research is a scientific-based discipline that requires a significant amount of human and intellectual capital.  The best marketing researchers are as much artists as scientists, blending the two to produce results that far exceed the client’s original expectations.

Therefore, it’s critical to know (and be able to spot) the difference between a true Marketing Research provider and a company who “also does research.”  This doesn’t mean that they necessarily label themselves as a Marketing Research firm – there are some advertising companies and consultants who do fine research – but that marketing research is a top ranked core competency for their business, and that they have dedicated staff and resources who are experts and experienced in the field.

Go beyond their sales pitch to understand who will be doing the research (their experience, credibility and capabilities), the work they’ve done, how long they’ve been doing it, and the impact it had. 

2. Do they have a proven track record for successfully producing insight-driven research that accomplishes business objectives? 

There are many marketers who are savvy enough to develop a survey in a free survey platform such as Survey Monkey, but this comes with serious limitations.  Yeah they offer some nice templates to get you started, and have some other user friendly features (although most require a premium account to access).  But at the end of the day, you’re going to get what you pay for, and that’s only the start (and one small part) of what it takes to do successful research.    

In order to conduct a successful research project, it requires a lot of knowledge, experience and creativity that starts before the questionnaire is built. You must identify the ‘true’ business objectives, design the research methodology that will enable you to build the optimal data collection engine, and decide how and where to distribute it – and long after the data comes in (what do you do with the data is just as important as the data itself).  Data must be cleaned to reduce noise, and then procedures must be run to pull out meaningful analysis.  Sometimes you can learn a lot from basic Descriptive Statistics (as explained in this excellent Khan Academy course), and other times you’ll need to run more advanced analytics such as Regression or MANOVA to go beyond “what happened” (descriptive analysis) to answer the key questions such as “why”, “what will happen”, and “how can we address it”.  

These aren’t the kinds of questions that someone who took a few marketing classes can be expected to answer (even people who have graduate degrees in relevant subjects such as marketing have to learn to think in this specific way and must be exposed to industry-specific factors which require experience and exposure to learn – I personally learned from leading researchers with excellent track records and it still took multiple projects to learn in spite of my relevant graduate degree from a well-respected program).

When all is said and done, you need to know that the company doing your research has the necessary experience (preferably with years or even decades of relevant work), and most importantly, that they can provide meaningful results.

3. Do they listen to your business problem or objective and offer a customized solution designed for your unique situation, or do they propose what feels like a “canned” solution? 

There are literally hundreds of study models out there. On any given project, which will likely combine two or more models, offers literally thousands of potential methodologies that could be implemented.  Your company is unique, so your research deserves a unique approach to whatever question(s) you’re trying to answer or problem you are looking to solve.  While your project will likely fall into an existing category that will reduce the options (as defined in The 4 Pillars of Research & Analytical Services), your research partner should select the optimal combination of study(s) and channel(s) (telephone, email, online, mobile, social media, “blended”, etc.) that will give you the greatest chance to produce groundbreaking insights.

Along these lines, it’s important to know who within the organization is driving the methodology.  This is where the “art” of marketing research comes into play – creating unique, innovative approaches to collect the data needed to answer the key questions which could uncover a previously undiscovered insight that can significantly impact your business.  If you’ve narrowed it down to a couple of firms that you believe can both deliver a finished project that will accomplish what they promised then select the one who has the most innovative and well-conceived methodology.

4. Will the team you’re meeting with in the initial discovery meetings be the team actually designing and managing your study?

Too many firms sell you on their “personal” service, and then hand the project off as soon as they have your business to a junior level analyst or project manager to run.  Therefore, it’s important to know if you are speaking directly with seasoned researchers when discussing project specifics (i.e., methodology), or only with account/sales professionals. Account or sales professionals often lack in applied research experience and might be selling something that doesn’t fit your need, or simply cannot be executed given the parameters or constraints in play.  

If you determine researchers are present, find out if that same person(s) will be working on your project.  Firms usually send their best and brightest to try to earn your business, which implies that you’ll have that same caliber of talent working directly on your project.  Knowing the answer to this question is a good place to start, “Are you buying from the company, or are you buying from the researchers and account team?”  There’s a pretty substantial difference between the two, and your research is only as good as those doing the work.  

Ask to see the bios of the team members who will be working on your account before working with any firm.  After all, you’re spending some or a lot of your precious budget on this project and deserve the top minds they can offer to ensure you get the best possible results for your investment.

5. How much input did the firm inject into the design of the outcomes?

A good research partner will listen to (and many times help you refine or even redefine) the objectives you’re hoping to achieve with the project.  We regularly tell our clients that they actually don’t need to do as much research as they initially thought, and we’ll work with them to help distill the project down into its critical elements.  Yes this means lost revenue in the short-term, but our goal is to form lasting relationships built on trust, transparency and results (not to mention it’s just the right thing to do), and many times this requires helping the client to understand what they need even though they may be asking for something different. 

As pointed out several times by now, market research is a science.  Most researchers have Masters degrees, many PhDs, and along with all of that student loan debt comes significant expertise, even thought-leadership.  Therefore, you should be suspicious if the firm agrees with everything you say and doesn’t offer original (and many times conflicting) thoughts and suggestions on how to conduct the research.  After all, you’re hiring them for their expertise, not to be “yes men”.

  Image courtesy of  Yahoo! Lifestyle India

Image courtesy of Yahoo! Lifestyle India

6. Does the firm’s proposed approach fit the scope and objectives of the work?

Once the objectives have been established, the firm’s proposed solution should clearly address the specific nuances of your information gathering needs.  Ask yourself if what they’re saying makes sense, and don’t be afraid to ask them to explain it multiple times.  Many times the firms will try to sell you what they know and are comfortable with, and will completely “miss the boat” in terms of designing a plan to match your objectives.  

Let’s use an example – you’re looking to gather insights on consumers aged 18-34, and the provider suggests using a telephone survey for data collection.  Now ask yourself, “does this fit with what we know about this demographic?”  Think about it this way – this demographic likely doesn’t own a home phone and rarely uses their mobile phone for verbal communication.  Therefore, we can deduce that this method was suggested for one of two reasons – either because this is what they’re comfortable with, or because they’re not familiar enough with the target population to know that there are better options.  Either way, you should know to keep looking.

They may also try to sell you something that you don’t need simply to boost project revenue.  Good researchers may insist on additional steps or follow up projects because they know your specific project needs this sort of design or information.  A deficient researcher will try to “upsell” you just to help their bottom line.  Don’t be afraid of this and thus close your mind off to this altogether, because often times it’s in your best interest.  Instead, ask for a detailed explanation of why you should do it and how it will benefit the project, and even for relevant examples of other projects where a similar approach yielded a successful result.

7. Do their questions force you to think critically? 

There are obviously questions that are operational, and serve to fill in the gaps. However, a firm that makes you think at a different level is doing proper due diligence with respect to delivering valuable insight – results that drive important business decisions.

A good research firm will use tactics to help pull out information that otherwise could easily be overlooked or viewed from the wrong vantage point.  For example, in the early discussions they may use role playing to act like your customers or prospects.  In fact, it’s not uncommon that someone on the research team could technically be a customer or prospect.  While you live and breathe your world every day, making it easy to get “too close,” a good researcher can enter your situation with a fresh set of eyes and ask questions that may impact your view for the better.

8. Are there any signs or inclinations of being overpromised?

A common pitfall of the services firm is to oversell and under-deliver.  The old notion of “sell it now, figure it out later” should be vetted out significantly.  Just because someone says they can do it doesn’t mean they can.  If a firm starts promising things that seem to be a stretch in an effort to close the deal, take the time to ask critical questions and make them explain their plan and timeline in detail.  If they can’t walk you through it to your satisfaction in a few minutes then they’re probably bluffing.

9. Can they provide one or more examples or case studies of previous projects?  Do these examples give you confidence that they can successfully tackle your project?  

Just like hiring a new employee, references are important.  They show prior experience and let you gauge the probability of a successful interaction based on having been there before.  While every great researcher had to start somewhere, marketing research has many nuances that are only learned from experience, so it’s unlikely that you would want to volunteer to be the guinea pig.

Even if the case studies don’t directly address the project you are looking to accomplish, they should demonstrate the firm’s creativity, flexibility and ability to execute.  You should enter into the agreement being comfortable that the firm is fully capable of providing you the maximum amount of insights, (‘bang for your buck’), and that you can trust the information they’ll provide enough that you would invest significant capital based on their findings and recommendations.  

After all, the goal of any market research project is to discover market opportunities or to improve/optimize existing business functions to impact the bottom line.  Too many companies design their strategies around the results of sub-par research, which can ultimately cost them tens of millions of dollars (“Crystal Pepsi” anyone?).

10. Are the proposed timelines realistic and in-line with your needs?  (And are your desired timelines truly achievable?)

Most projects have a timeframe they need to operate within.  However, there are many things to consider regarding timelines beyond “can you have this done by this date?”  For example, is this timeframe reasonable, or will we be forcing a rushed project that could increase the likelihood of errors?  Many times research is pushed off to the last minute (even though it should logically be the first thing you do…), which often causes project requests that simply aren’t achievable, or at least not at the level of accuracy a premier firm would require.  If one or more reputable firms are saying your timeline isn’t possible, it probably isn’t.  After all, who would turn away business unless it meant a possible risk to their reputation?

Similarly, promising a shorter timeline doesn’t always mean it’s a better, more capable firm.  Very often firms will try to force a timeline and end up doing sloppy work.

If one firm says it’s going to take 12 weeks and another says 3, find out why there’s such a large disparity.  Many times the firm quoting you 12 weeks is building in a couple of weeks’ worth of buffer in case unforeseen complications arise, so that they can deliver the project on or before the deadline.  The one promising 3 weeks, however, is very likely another case of overpromising, which almost always leads to under-delivering.  

You want a firm that, based on the conversation you are having, gives you a conservative and realistic figure, because they are heavily interested in the end product.

11. Is the firm’s quoted price their most attractive feature?  Stop and ask yourself “does the price truly match the objectives in question”?

Cheap research could end up costing you millions if not properly executed, so if you’ve decided to do research then make sure you do it right.  Market research isn’t the place to pinch pennies when making up your budget.  Ask yourself, “how much does a dollar give me in terms of desired output, specifically relating to a decision?”  You’re going to get what you pay for, and you could be paying for it significantly later.  Or as said by the great Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “It takes less time to do a thing right, than it does to explain why you did it wrong.”

  Image courtesy of  izquotes.com

Image courtesy of izquotes.com

A good firm will help you streamline the study to fit your budget by identifying and focusing on your key business objectives, which may be different than what you originally thought when you started.  A true pro should help you determine this and then work within your budget to get the most critical, scientifically objective intelligence your budget will allow.  

Don’t make the mistake of being sold on price alone!

12. Do their compliance procedures and security measures align with your needs and internal requirements? 

Given the highly sensitive issue of personal and proprietary data, it’s important to find a partner that can meet your security standards and understand how to work with your compliance department to anticipate and navigate potential project roadblocks.  In today’s digital world, this takes A LOT more time than it did ten years ago.  A professional, experienced firm will know how to establish achievable timelines and streamline processes to accomplish intended deliverables.  Similarly, this partner needs to understand the sensitivity of your data and demonstrate that they will take the extra precaution to ensure that it is safe.

Conclusion

Market Research is undeniably one of the most significant and reliably effective techniques you can use to optimize and grow many areas of your business.  Unlike the ‘self-evident truths’ made in the US Declaration of Independence’s “immortal declaration” where all men are created equal, not all research firms are created equal.  In fact, not all research firms are even research firms!

Research is an investment in the acquisition of intelligence, enabling a business to make strategic and tactical decisions that typically involve a much greater financial commitment than the cost of the research itself.  

With that in mind, doesn’t it make sense to do your due diligence and find a partner who can provide you with critical insights you can rely on, rather than just shopping your project out to the lowest bidder? 

After all, would you let just any “surgeon” do a heart transplant just because they offer you a good deal in the grocery store parking lot?