Editor's note: Scott Aaron is a principal at Insights for Innovation, a Cincinnati research company. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appeared in the May 20, 2013, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter.
In my former role as consumer insights leader, there were several times when we brought on new suppliers (usually referred to as partners) and I'd like to share the process I used when selecting them. For the sake of this article, I'll assume that the partner being brought on is working on something of a sizable magnitude, like a customer satisfaction program or a brand and communications tracking study. All of these steps may or may not be necessary if the partner is not engaging in work that touches many internal customers but they are still good tools to have available.
Bringing on new partners is a great opportunity in many ways. I always looked forward to new perspectives, tools, techniques and meeting new, smart people. But perhaps what I looked forward to most was the chance to interface with experts on the supplier side who, in the beginning stages of the relationship, are somewhat naïve about the business but ready and excited to apply their knowledge. This naïve optimism can lend itself to breakthroughs in consumer learning.
The first step in selecting a new research partner is to do your own evaluation of the current state of business. If a new partner is being brought in to revamp an existing workstream, ask yourself: What value is the current program providing to the organization? Have the key questions changed over time? What decisions is this work impacting? What is working well that we don't want to lose in transition? What are we missing?
As the insights leader, you are likely the best person to evaluate where and how a program could be stronger. With your understanding of strengths and weaknesses of methodologies, you are also in the best position to know what aspects of the current work need bolstering and what methods might improve the outcome of the work.
Your later stakeholder discussions around these questions will vary by group. The insights team may be concerned with methodology, data collection and partner responsiveness while internal clients may focus on delivery of insight, clarity of the information or actionability of the results. It's better to have a solid POV on strengths and weaknesses of the current scenario going into the selection process (i.e., prior to formally reaching out to the stakeholders) than to be totally open, if for no other reason than you can test and build your hypotheses as you go.
Developing needs, objectives and selection criteria
The next step is to investigate, interrogate, articulate and gain alignment with key stakeholders in terms of what you're trying to accomplish with the work in question. Key stakeholders usually consist of:
- the internal consumer insights team;
- key internal clients (include key executives that use the output of the work or see the output consistently); and
- key external clients.
I would typically make sure I covered several points with the key stakeholders, including objectives of the work, desired outcomes and selection criteria for the new partner. If replacing one partner with another, I also tried to understand what the stakeholders thought was working and what could be improved. Here are some questions I would use to facilitate the discussion:
Why are we doing this work? What do we miss if we don't have it? How is this moving the brand or business forward? What is in-bounds for this work vs. out-of-bounds? What must be learned? Are there strategic changes coming in the business that will impact this work at a later time?
What decisions are being directly informed by this work? What is the risk level of these decisions? Is anything getting in the way of the team's ability to make the decisions they would like to (i.e., missing information, information that isn't clear, information that's difficult to interpret, etc.)? Is there something in what we're doing now that we don't want to lose? Some dynamic we have with the current supplier we want to avoid in the future?
Despite working together every day, these more strategic and reflective discussions with stakeholders could elicit new information or perspectives. These talks are critical and were always well worth the time.
Criteria for selection
When it comes to evaluating potential partners, consider including the following criteria: methodological savvy, analytical sophistication, innovation, service levels, people, communication of results, ability to synthesize insights across studies and expertise in the category or industry. Typically, some criteria are more important than others and should be weighted more heavily in making the final selection.
You can use your selection criteria and weights to develop a scorecard. For some really large projects, several stakeholder teams may contribute to the scorecard.
Final internal alignment
Once you summarize and synthesize the feedback, you should be able to precisely articulate the objectives of the work; what decisions you expect the work to influence and how; and what the selection criteria is for the new partner company. It is wise to get sign-off on this document, as it will drive your request for proposal (RFP) and will be what key stakeholders take away from your discussions. These documents are also crucial for the future. If needed, you can share this with new stakeholders, showing the key criteria and the selection process.
I always liked to solicit proposals from a spectrum of potential partners. This can help you crystallize your objectives and criteria and help you see what you are missing now and - just as importantly - what you have today that is better than you might have thought.
This spectrum can be defined in several dimensions so you'll have to pick the most relevant dimension for the situation. I would advise having at least two suppliers that will view your situation somewhat similarly and bring similar tools and approaches. This can elicit some good thinking and help keep bids competitive.
Some of the dimensions I used in the past were boutique suppliers vs. large, more general suppliers; newer firms vs. more established firms; methodologically innovative vs. traditional; and current suppliers vs. new-to-our-company suppliers.
Developing the RFP
You will use the material you developed in the previous steps to create your RFP. I'm sure there have been great articles written on RFP development so I will simply offer some of my experience on this point, rather than relay best practices.
I liked to allow some room for creativity on the part of the potential partner. I always looked forward to seeing how different partners would approach the work and solve the puzzle. The more I imposed or stipulated in the RFP, the less creative thinking I might see. On the other hand, if the RFP's requirements are too loose or vague, you won't see good thinking either; guardrails keep people from driving all over the road.
I would typically allow for one round of questions prior to having potential partners present in-person or deliver the proposal. I usually did this discussion via phone so that if something wasn't clear in the RFP, we could address it prior to a lot of work being done on the supplier's part. I would do everything I could to ensure I gave each potential partner the same information.
One valuable lesson we learned through doing this is that the questions asked by the potential partner say a lot about them. Often we would get a feel for the level of engagement we were engendering and some idea as to how the potential partners approached problem-solving.
There is an opportunity during presentations for the potential partners to give you perspective on the work ahead, especially if it's new to you. (Of course, you have to signal that you are open to their perspective.) They can help set your expectations about the work so you can in turn better set internal expectations.
I would only invite in potential partners that we believed to be the strongest to avoid wasting anyone's time. The two main things we would look for in the presentation were the quality of the approach and thinking and some sense for the culture fit between teams.
Another question worth asking is which supplier team members would be working on the day-to-day business. It is nice when suppliers have wonderful presenters but you really need to know who is going to be working with you and your internal clients.
Prior to beginning a new relationship, I would advise you talk to other clients of your finalists. After all, it's always smart to check references. Client cultures and situations can be fairly different so a variety of perspectives can be illuminating.
A winner emerges
After seeing the presentations, use your selection criteria and weighted scorecard to make your decision. There may be some close calls but if the team uses the criteria faithfully, a winner emerges.
Stay tuned for part two of this series where I will discuss onboarding and how client-side researchers can manage the process to ensure high-quality work from research partners.