Stop taking orders!

Editor's note: Anne E. Beall is CEO and founder of Beall Resarch. Mark Geniesse is the firm’s senior vice president. They can be reached at and

Early in our careers, we always executed the research design we were given. Whether it involved conducting six focus groups or collecting 250 surveys, we did what we were told. We were both service-oriented, so we believed that doing what the client wanted was paramount. However, we had a significant challenge: Our roles weren’t as simple as flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant. We were employees of professional services firms that clients relied on for high-level insights and consulting. But the transition from merely following orders to offering consultative insights wasn’t something we were prepared to do early in our careers. And, even with training, it’s all too easy to slip back into old habits.

One of us took a job at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), an organization that conducted both qualitative and quantitative research. It was routine for partners and case team members to outline their research needs, often specifying the exact research design they wanted. Compelled to meet these requests unquestioningly, one of us felt there was no room for deviation.

While at BCG, a critical juncture was an early performance review. The memory of that meeting is sharply etched in one author’s mind. It was a high-tension, charged atmosphere. The feedback was critical. The supervisor highlighted a fundamental issue: passive acceptance of research designs given from clients without challenging or refining them.

“You are the expert. You’re the consultant. It’s your job to design the research for our clients, not merely to carry out their instructions,” the supervisor firmly stated.

However, presenting alternative suggestions to senior BCG employees, often partners in the firm, was incredibly daunting.

“But these are senior people at the company. They are set in their desire for a specific research design. When I propose alternatives, they always insist on their initial plan.”

The supervisor remained firm. “Exactly, but they aren’t the market research specialists – you are. That’s the very reason we hired you.”

A red chess piece on a puzzle board.

Series of realizations

The other author’s journey didn’t pivot on a single moment of revelation but developed through a series of realizations with the accumulation of experience. Often research designs seemed misaligned with the objectives they were supposed to meet, whether the survey population being targeted seemed off, the sample sizes for important subgroups weren’t substantial enough or the chosen analytical approach wasn’t the most appropriate option. This author frequently encountered the challenge of sifting through data that fell short of addressing the clients’ true needs. 

This predicament was inherited; the research design, already cast in stone by the time they were brought into the project, could not be adjusted. It was a recurring theme: arriving too late to shape the study, yet early enough to foresee the limitations of its outcomes. Over time, however, as this author gained experience and the confidence to advocate for the right approach earlier in the process, they saw the positive impact this had on the results and clients’ reactions to the insights.

The transition into research consultants wasn’t an overnight transformation. For one author, the metamorphosis was sparked by the ongoing guidance at BCG. With this help, the author altered their strategy, resulting in a career advancement in just one year. Moreover, it transformed their client interactions and improved the quality of their analysis and insights. It enabled case teams to delve deeper, uncovering and addressing the unvoiced needs of their clients.

For the other author, the journey took a different path. It was the responses to their proposed research designs that led to a shift in their client interactions. Initial successes in advocating for alternative approaches emboldened them, fostering confidence. These early victories weren’t just wins; they were stepping stones, paving the way towards a more assertive stance in client engagements. 

The experiences of both authors helped to shape our careers. The way we approached conducting research led to the success of Beall Research, which now celebrates over two decades in the industry.

Throughout our careers, we’ve met many researchers who felt they were largely order-takers, just following a research design prescribed to them rather than thinking through the objectives and questioning when the objectives and design seem misaligned. Falling into this pattern is deceptively easy. It’s easy to respond to requests for bids, timelines or feasibility assessments without reevaluating the design to ensure it represents the best approach.

We’re eager to share strategies that have not only empowered us but have also significantly increased our value as consultants. It involves transforming the client-consultant relationship, so we become indispensable thought partners our clients rely on, offering not only our research designs but also guiding them to understand the critical questions they truly need to answer. This is the crux of our value. Below are the techniques we’ve adopted to accomplish this. They’re applicable whether you’re an agency/vendor researcher or an in-house/client-side researcher working with internal clients.

Reorienting the conversation

The most critical step is to take control of the initial conversation. Instead of immediately discussing the specifics of the study the client wants, we introduce a pivotal question. Sometimes, we smoothly transition into this by asking for permission, “Do you mind if I first get some background to fully understand your study?” At this juncture, we ask, “What exactly is the objective of this study? What are you trying to understand?”

These questions often uncover the underlying need, directing us toward the most effective research design. For example, if a client is tracking a new trend in the market, a survey might suit their needs better than qualitative research. Alternatively, if the goal is to delve into consumers’ decision-making processes, immersive tools like discussion boards while they’re actively buying something could yield deeper insights.

The reality is that many clients – whether internal or external – believe they understand market research more than they actually do. Moreover, they tend to lean towards familiar methodologies. If they’ve previously used focus groups, they’re likely to suggest this approach again because it’s within their comfort zone. This is often why we’re presented with research designs that are not ideal.

It’s crucial to engage the client before they become too entrenched in a specific research design. Dwelling too long on their suggested approach makes it challenging to pivot to a more appropriate methodology later. Our goal is to steer the conversation toward effective research design early on, before clients become committed to their initial plan.

Securing our influence and ensuring our place at the table involves posing pointed, insightful questions that delve beneath the surface. The following questions have been invaluable in our experience once we begin the conversation about the goal of the research. 

Our follow-up query is usually, “How do you plan to use the information gathered from this study?” This question helps pinpoint the actual purpose of the study, allowing us to tailor the research design to meet their real needs. Understanding how the client intends to use the research findings is essential. This insight not only clarifies the study’s objective but also informs its design to ensure it effectively meets their requirements.

We also ask, “What are your current hypotheses?” This question uncovers the client’s expectations and thoughts about the research outcomes. If they hypothesize a difference in perception between current and potential customers, the study design must differentiate these groups. It’s remarkable how articulating these hypotheses can significantly influence the research approach.

Elevate our role

These inquiries do more than just shape our research design; they elevate us to the role of a consultative partner, moving beyond the realm of executing tasks. By asserting our position as an equal, we’re not just seeking respect; we’re providing value. These questions ensure the insights we provide are actionable.

After gathering this information, we’re well-positioned to propose alternative methodologies or approaches. At this point, we usually say, “Given your objectives, [alternative methodology] could offer new insights into [specific aspect].” This approach isn’t about negating their initial request but rather showing our expertise, giving them new perspectives to consider. By presenting these suggestions as additional options, we demonstrate our depth of knowledge and offer them angles they might not have considered. We encourage them to look beyond their initial plan while respecting their primary objectives.

However, it’s crucial to remember our role as service providers. We consciously avoid transforming these discussions into power struggles or suggesting that our recommended research design is the only way forward. We always adopt a collaborative approach: “I understand your preference for [their chosen design], and I’m prepared to proceed if that’s your wish. Every methodology has its strengths and weaknesses. I just want to make you aware of the trade-offs involved.”

This tactful method honors the client’s initial desires while introducing our added-value perspective. It’s about steering them back into the decision-making seat, armed with our consultancy expertise. By framing the discussion this way, we not only respect their desires but also affirm our commitment to help them fulfill their research goals. Discussing the advantages of their preferred approach alongside our suggested one enables the client to make informed choices. This strategy reassures them of their control but with the added advantage of our expertise. It’s about finding the perfect equilibrium between adhering to their requests and demonstrating our value as a consultant, ensuring that the research surpasses their expectations.

This consultative method does more than enhance the research; it amplifies our role in the eyes of the client. Through meaningful dialogue, expert insights and respect for their decision-making process, we become an irreplaceable resource. This transformation is the essence of a true consultant.

Commitment to transparency

Among the many tools in our arsenal, honesty stands out as one of the simplest and most powerful. Our commitment to transparency is unwavering: “Yes, we can do that for you, but to be perfectly honest, I’m concerned it might not be the best use of your resources. While I’m prepared to proceed, part of my responsibility is to ensure the research truly serves your interests, even if it doesn’t benefit us.” This candid approach not only demonstrates our integrity but also significantly strengthens our relationships with clients. It transforms our role from service providers into trusted advisors, deeply invested in our clients’ success. By daring to voice concerns and prioritize the client’s needs over short-term profits, we transcend the traditional vendor-client dynamic. Instead, we forge a partnership rooted in mutual respect and a shared commitment to achieving meaningful, impactful outcomes. Honesty, in this sense, is not just a policy but a foundational principle that elevates our work and solidifies our place as a partner to our clients. 

In navigating the complex terrain of market research, adopting a consultative stance transforms the very fabric of client interactions. It’s not merely about enhancing the research design; it’s about forging a partnership where mutual respect and collaboration pave the way for groundbreaking insights and actionable results. This journey from being viewed as task executors to becoming valued consultants is both challenging and rewarding. It requires patience, strategic questioning and courage.

As we embed ourselves deeper into the consultative role, we find that our contributions extend beyond the immediate project at hand. We become the “experts” and our clients ask us to give input on major decisions – we are more than just researchers. This shift not only elevates our status in the eyes of our clients but also enriches our professional satisfaction, knowing we’ve guided them towards more informed, effective solutions.

Champion the cause

In the end, the essence of a true consultative relationship lies in its ability to transcend transactional boundaries, fostering a deeper, more meaningful engagement with our clients. It’s about setting a higher standard for the industry, where the focus shifts from what is requested to what is truly needed. As we continue to navigate these relationships with tact, expertise and a collaborative spirit, we not only enhance the value of our services but also champion the cause of thoughtful, impactful research.