Research and insights teams: Tips for improving the client/supplier relationship 

Editor’s note: Jason Jacobson is director of consumer insights at Woodside Homes. 

Insights clients and research suppliers don’t always see eye to eye. Is it possible to bridge the gap in perspectives and elevate the relationship between research clients and suppliers? Yes – and it starts with having empathy and understanding between the two sides. 

Just over two years ago – after 20 years on the consulting side (aka the Light Side) – I made the move to the client side (affectionately known as the Dark Side). It was an eye-opening experience seeing insights from the other side of the table. Like so many things in life, when you walk in someone else's shoes, you see things differently. 

If we work together and see things from both sides, we can bridge the gap and improve client/supplier relationships and client satisfaction levels. In this article, I will share five areas where I think we can make a difference.

1. Proposals.

When you receive an RFP as a supplier, it’s easy to get excited and start putting together an approach and slides to try to win the business. However, what often falls short is the personalization of the proposal. It’s important to tailor your proposal to the specific business issues of the client, rather than using canned templated slides. It's also important to follow up after receipt of the RFP to express interest in being given the chance to present in person. Clients want suppliers to be successful partners, so they should provide guidance on what they're looking for in a proposal. In turn, suppliers should keep the lines of communication open and check in regularly on the status of the RFP.

2. Objectives.

When suppliers start on a research project, it is important for them to come to an agreement with the client about objectives and expectations. This will help to lessen the gap between the supplier's narrow focus on methodology, questions and insights for a singular study, and the client's broader view of what their stakeholders need to act on. The client should bring in their stakeholders, let them voice what they want, better illuminate the end research goals and provide an overall research map to show how this project fits within the system.

3. Insights.

When suppliers have data from a study, they want to jump right in and start showing their work! This is the fun part of the job, where they get to showcase their value, create visually compelling reports and build a larger deck with slides, significant differences, etc. However, suppliers don't always understand what the final deliverable should be. Clients tend to take a more holistic view of insights. They think about what the story is first, how to package this for stakeholders (multiple times with different groups in mind) and how to present it internally. For better insights, suppliers can check in frequently, share early drafts and work to produce information in a digestible format with heavy use of the appendix. When possible, intersperse videos to bring the information to life. Clients should think about insights as a co-creation document. They need to provide the why, clarify the takeaways and discuss stakeholder learning styles so that the end document meets those needs.

4. Provide feedback. 

As a supplier, it can be discouraging to receive an e-mail with feedback and edits on an attachment. You put a lot of time, effort and heart into your work, and you want to wow your clients. But sometimes it's difficult to gauge what they want, because you don't have visibility into their end goal. You also must balance any updates or rework with new projects. It's OK to push back on unreasonable requests from clients. Oftentimes, when they give feedback, it's simply because they haven't seen anything yet and are reacting. Sometimes stakeholders will completely change their minds about what they want – but remember that feedback is usually given with the best intentions. Clients might not always know how to articulate what they want or be respectful of your workload, but that doesn't mean you can't deliver great insights. To do this, ask your clients questions early and often. Share drafts early on and position them as such – you don't have to be perfect from the start. Set expectations around how many revisions you're willing to make. And encourage your clients to frame feedback as debate and discussion. By taking a more collaborative approach and being human in your interactions, you can deliver great work while respecting each other's time and workloads.

5. Agile research, dashboards, AI, oh my! 

Clients are bombarded with mass e-mails every day promising faster, better decision-making insights that will save time and money. There is always a new technology or dashboard on the market promising to revolutionize the way data is used and accessed. Suppliers get excited about these new solutions, but too often their reach outs are canned and lack personalization. As a result, a client’s initial reactions is often one of skepticism or even exhaustion – they already feel like they're swimming in data and anything new takes time to implement. To help new solutions gain traction, suppliers should send personal reach outs that connect with business pain points, offer up a proof of concept to demonstrate the capabilities or even a trial subscription. In turn, clients should provide clarity on our business decisions, what this internal process is to bring something new on board and show what it takes to make an impact. 

When marketing researchers work together

The insights industry can and should do better. I know that this can be a difficult task. But by working together and having better relationships, we can evolve from data and elevate above insights and co-creating guidance.