Maximize the wins, minimize the losses

Editor's note: Elissa Moses is partner in qual platform provider HARK Connect and CEO of research and branding firm BrainGroup Global. 

When Joni Mitchell sings, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now” she could easily be describing my career as both a client and a research vendor. I have written the RFPs and awarded millions of dollars in research and I have answered the RFPs and won millions, not to mention lost millions, as well.

Research can be a high-stakes endeavor with brand positioning, new product introductions and major ad campaigns hanging in the balance. And if you are the head of a client research function, it is critical to get the most out of your budget with a push toward guiding your company to the best-in-class new techniques and innovations, while keeping an eagle eye on quality and ROI.

What are the best practices in being a client and a vendor in the RFP or design and bidding process? Well, no one teaches this unless you learn from a good boss and I was fortunate enough to be schooled by some of the greats! But overall, both sides need to understand the process so that they can get the best deal, protect their interests and act with honor and integrity.

If you are a client…

Be specific. Which countries? What incidence? How are you defining your target? (Last week I got asked to provide a bid for one of the biggest global studies ever and when I asked which countries we should go to for the qual portion out of those listed, the answer was, “You decide.”) All of the details impact pricing and you may get much more attractive estimates if you can provide the givens upfront. Otherwise the bid will rest on assumptions and the reality could provide surprises such as an incidence assumption of 85% that turns out to be 25%.

Lead with objectives (not methodology). I always tell my teams, if you start with clear objectives, the study designs itself. An astute and skilled researcher has a large tool chest full of methodologies and understands what it will take to get at the goals of a study request with the most efficiency, reliability and insight. And it may not be what you are initially asking for as the client. Too many times we get requests for specific methodologies and they don’t fit the challenge. Before you send the e-mail or make the call, if you give thought about what you really need to know or understand, you are likely to get more actionable answers – and for less money.

Be realistic. What is your budget? It’s usually impolite to ask. Clients get suspicious and think the vendor is trying to spend all the money allotted. And yet it is not uncommon for an inexperienced client to call asking for the moon, letting the vendor wax poetic for an hour about the perfect design and then saying, “Oh, I only have $X.”  If you are a startup/ad agency in a pitch/a company who never does research, let the vendor know you are on a shoestring budget so they can recommend a viable design accordingly.  You can quote my former mentor, who used to say, “I only want a Volkswagen, not a Mercedes.”

Understand what is involved in requesting a bid. Some clients have no clue what is involved in the research bidding process. There are many moving parts. For a quantitative study, there need to be estimates for sample, scripting, cleaning, length of interview, closed vs. open-ended questions, tabulation, table creation, analysis and reporting by cell, target and market. For qualitative research, there is consideration for the cost of recruiting, incentives, the number of recruits, inclusion of extra recruits for no-shows, moderator fees, type of analysis and report and qualtech platform and/or facility rental, number of clients attending, markets and possibly refreshments. Both types of study need to be assessed for timing and deliverables. And if you are doing specialized or ad hoc studies, for instance, which require ethnographic market immersions, semiotic analyses, neuromarketing lab work, etc., there are even more considerations. The quality of your design and results will rely on thinking through all of these details to have the best elements in the mix.

Make sure you get a commitment on who will be doing the work. This is critical if experience and brainpower are to be taken into consideration. And as an insider, I can tell you that the bigger the research company (same with ad agencies) the more likely you will be talking to and paying for senior people, while junior people actually do the work. Insist on getting who you want on the project.

Allow enough time for a proper bid. Proper bidding takes time. For a standard study or service it is a matter of checking a price sheet and can be accomplished instantly. But for the custom studies, multinational studies and research with multiple phases, there are many e-mails to be sent, conversations to be had and negotiations to be made on your behalf. If subcontractors are used for sample, moderating, etc., there are often ways to save you money that the research vendor can achieve for you, but it takes time. Even the studies that are handled internally by one vendor often require internal negotiation, with your account person arguing on your behalf to give you a sweet deal because you are a great client with a lot of potential. You may never know, but good vendors work hard for you.

On the flip side, if you ask for a bid and say you need it right away, it might mean them giving up their weekend, holiday or vacation just to come through for you. Are you even really considering this vendor for the project? Or are you reaching for another competitive bid at the last minute because it would be nice to have? I remember giving up attending a jazz festival in Bucharest on my vacation so I could get a huge bid out to a prospective client because they needed it “Urgently!” I gave it to them and they went radio-silent.

Make the vendor care. If you treat the vendor as your partner, someone you are counting on to help you reach your goals, they will usually jump through hoops for you and give your project priority over others. It’s simple human nature. Of course, vendors need to make money but they are also driven by pride in their work and helping clients achieve success. Recently I helped a client achieve a huge promotion by providing the insights our studies brought to her company using our methodology. She thanked us profusely and rewarded us with another large project.

Show respect. So often the RFP process takes hours upon hours of work, pulling the bid together and writing the proposal, getting everyone’s internal weigh-in. Let the vendor know what you decide, even if it is disappointing news. Enable them to get your prospective project off their status sheet and move on with a simple “not this time – thank you” or better yet, with some candid feedback on why they were not chosen (your bid was too high, we liked another’s approach, etc.). It will benefit both the vendor and you for next time around if you let them know how they can improve. As a client, I make this a common practice.

If you are a vendor…

Go the extra mile. Give the client more than they ask for. Extra analyses, special charts, a video from the groups, whatever makes the deliverables more insightful and come to life. On a brand strategy project, our art director gave the client a new logo variation emanating from the research findings and it is now the brand’s logo with rave reviews. Needless to say we are now a favorite repeat vendor.

Be your client’s champion. Find them a better, faster, cheaper way to do the study. Negotiate within your company on their behalf and with your subcontractors and then let them know what you saved them. I found myself, in response to a client thank-you note last week, writing, “It’s because we care.” And it’s true. Use your client’s products, talk to people about them to learn how the target feels, write your questionnaires and discussion guides like an insider, not a robot.

Protect yourself. Not all clients have scruples, I hate to say. They may think nothing of having you work the weekend on a proposal you never had a shot at, taking your original inventive design and giving it to their favorite vendor or having you invest startup dollars to prove yourselves when they don’t have the authority to make the choice. This is where your native research skills come into play. Ask questions. Here are some favorites:

  • What will the RFP decision be determined by? Do we have an equal chance?
  • If the bid requester is an unknown research company or agency, ask if they have worked with the end client before. 
  • If being asked for a big bid on a rush timetable, how many other bids does the client have already? Why is this such a rush? Chances are you are an afterthought for a competitive bid with no chance of being awarded the study.
  • Who is the decision maker? This reminds me of a $300,000 investment that a startup I was part of made for proof-of-concept under the promise of, “We want you to scale for us globally.” It was a large, reputable company everyone has heard of and uses its products. But in the end, the client was a big talker with no authority.
  • Red flags: sketchy on the details; no interest in who you are as a company or consultant (they’re just after your bid); in a big rush; not knowledgeable about marketing research.

Manage client expectations.  Clients can work with disappointments and possible schedule delays. It’s not good to miss a deadline but it’s unforgiveable not to let the client know there’s a problem or something is late. Try to beat deadlines when you can.

Be prepared for change. Projects fall through. Clients (or their bosses) change their minds. Problems arise. A good vendor is a good partner. Be empathetic and adapt to whatever comes your way. Your clients will remember you for it favorably.

Honor your commitments. Stick to the original price. Deliver what you promise. Keep things confidential and show you really care. If you are a quality researcher, you will go far and enjoy not only great client relationships but true, lasting friendships.

Stay current. Technology is driving rapid change in the marketing research industry, from artificial intelligence and virtual reality to neuroscience and big data. If you want to stay competitive, go to webinars, attend industry events, take courses, build expert or academic advisory boards, innovate, conduct research on research and stay out in front!

Travel as partners

As researchers, we all have the privilege to create knowledge that was not there before. How people feel about issues, brands, advertising, packages, experiences – you name it – we are building understanding that is new, unique and actionable. For many of us, it takes us to the four corners of the world, either on Zoom or by plane, making us adventurers into the human psyche and culture without bounds. The best way to travel into these uncharted waters is as partners. For clients and vendors alike, the journey is so much more enjoyable when we go together, partnering as explorers. Hopefully these true-to-life guidelines will make for better experiences between clients and vendors all around.