The perils of client briefings

Editor’s note: Deborah C. Sawyer is president of New York research firm Information Plus.

As a research vendor, you strive to provide good customer service. But what if clients themselves get in the way of good service? This can happen when a research firm is called on to do what are sometimes known as progress briefings.

The client wants to know how things are going. Fair enough; after all, they are the ones who are paying for the work. But how you handle the briefing may not only have an impact on the outcome of the particular project at hand, it may also have a bearing on if you ever work for the client again.

Here is an overview of the when, why and how of client briefings and what can go wrong.

  • When should you brief?

If you are handling a three- to six-month contract, a once-a-month briefing - whether in person or by conference call - sounds reasonable. Or, perhaps, the same via e-mail, if all parties are pressed for time. But if the project is, say, four to five weeks, a weekly briefing could be unreasonable, especially if you have to do it in-person. This was true of a project we took on that was to last four to five weeks, involved talking to, amongst other parties, surgeons at hospitals, and, oh yes, was due one week before Christmas! And the client expected briefings each week! (Only the fact we were based in a different city saved us from the in-person requirement; they did consent to teleconferences.) What happened in this case, of course, is that the briefings began to run the project, rather than the natural pace of the work. Attempts to negotiate a changed schedule of briefings met with a stone wall. The relationship deteriorated from there on in.

Any time you are asked about progress briefings, make every effort to have your firm set the schedule. Suggesting “For a project of this length, we recommend…” allows you to sound both willing and reasonable. Another tactic is to volunteer a schedule in your proposal or quote; if the client can see you plan to keep them informed periodically, they will be less likely to come up with their own ideas. (Honestly, for a project of four to five weeks, we never thought to suggest briefings. We thought the main objective would be getting the work done on time!)

  • Why undertake progress briefings?

As to why you should brief, the first reason, of course, is a matter of client courtesy and to maintain the confidence of the client in your firm. But to make this whole aspect of the project work successfully, you need to determine at start-up exactly why the client wants to be briefed and if this makes sense. Do they want to know that the budget is being managed properly? Do they have concerns about whether the project will be kept on track for timely completion? Are they concerned about the results and the quality of them? Some of these issues are reasonable requests for a client to know about while a project is underway. But prior to agreeing to do the briefings, you should have a reasonable framework of what the client expects to find out about.

If the project is going smoothly and there is no need for client input about the guts of the work, then some overview feedback about direction and progress should really suffice. However, if major problems have arisen and you cannot move forward without their input, a more detailed briefing, at your request, is a matter of client courtesy.

This issue came up with some research we did for a gas company, interested in learning about its customers’ customers, to assess the “trickle down” effect on its own business during a recession.

The gas company assumed it had little exposure to consumer markets, as most of its customers were industrials. However, as we plunged into the research, it turned out that most of the customers’ customers were in retail or consumer products. Since this had a major bearing on how the client could move forward, on completion of the research, a briefing was in order. But our focus was on how we were probing the extent of each customer’s exposure to consumer markets and the ideas and solutions we could generate to help our client hedge its bets.

Another reason to get back to the client for more detailed input is if, for example, they have provided a customer list and you are finding that one-third of the contacts listed are either no longer with the target companies or perhaps are deceased. Or, that of the target companies on the list the client provided, nine out of 10 are out of business or have been bought out. (One of the frequent discoveries in research is just how little client companies know about their customer base!) In such cases, it makes sense to spill the beans and discuss such a dramatic departure from the original concept long before the project is finished.

  • How should you brief?

In terms for how you keep in touch with clients, e-mail works for some people and is a good way to be proactive. You can “ping” the client to let them know you’re on track and give them quick hits of progress data without divulging all the details. Another way to brief is to send a cover letter providing an overview with any invoice you send in for a progress billing. Faxes and teleconferences also work, again in the context of the scope of the work and the length of the project. There is no one way to do it and no one way that is better than any other except following the principles of tailoring to the type of work, the project length and the budget.

If these requirements for progress briefings are known at the start of the project, they can be worked into your price. For example, with clients you know and whose requirements are familiar, you can easily include time and effort for briefings into your overall price. With new clients, it’s sometimes desirable to allow for the unexpected. “The above quote allows for a one-hour meeting at the halfway mark. Additional, in-person briefings will be quoted extra at the rate of $x.” Much as with suggesting a briefing schedule, quoting extra for more briefings may cool many clients’ ardor for trying to use such get-togethers to micromanage the project.

  • What can go wrong?

Even with all the these steps taken and your best prior planning, a lot can go wrong on the way from start to finish, thanks to briefings. One time, part way through a strategic research exercise for a forest products company, we traveled to undertake a progress briefing, at which the client decided to go over the objectives for the project and then made the first changes to what would be a completely meandering exercise. If that wasn’t already bad news, a major snowstorm made us late getting out of town. This was probably an omen: at the next meeting - held at our office (we do try to learn!) - lo and behold, the client changed the project direction again.

When projects meander to and from goals, they rarely meet anyone’s expectations - the client’s or yours. The most common unhappy outcome from progress briefings is the client making major re-directions in the project goals, to the point where you really have an entirely new piece of work to do. And the reason the client - if they learn too much too early in the process - will do this is that what you are finding out doesn’t fit their worldview. The fact you have been engaged to shed light in dark places doesn’t make any difference; if views the client cherishes about itself or its products/services are coming under attack, the client will want to fiddle.

This is what happened in one instance, when we were handling research for a company that was so concerned about its image and its place in the universe that we even had to put registration and trademark symbols after its name in our proposals. For at least 20 years, this company had enjoyed a monopoly on its product, but due to patent expirations, it was now under attack from many quarters. One of our objectives was to help these people steer their way forward, though with each client briefing letting them in on some of the findings, they clung obstinately to a rearview-mirror interpretation of the world and refused to look forward.

It’s not surprising that this company was later bought out - but that’s another story. Had we not provided detailed briefings in the name of good customer service, perhaps the results from the research might have actually helped the organization. Instead, they were so rankled that the final results were viewed with disdain.

While it’s not uncommon for clients to take a “shoot the messenger” approach with research suppliers, it may actually be easier to meet objectives and help a client if you reveal very little while the work is in progress.

That is why it’s essential to put in the quote or proposal, worded as nicely as possible, that “adjustments” will be necessary to both the budget and the schedule if there are any re-directions from the project goals set out at start-up.

To go back to the example at the beginning of this article, on the third of the weekly briefings for the five-week project, the product manager started delivering new requirements that would have entailed an entirely new direction for the research. The answers she wanted could not have been obtained from those already contacted, so it wasn’t even a case of re-calling those interviewed. The fact this company had provided a purchase order that was written in stone made it impossible for us to change the budget. So we didn’t perform these extra tasks. Naturally, the client wasn’t too happy about this.

Too much success

An extra pitfall can come along if, during a progress briefing, you convey the idea of too much success. If it sounds like the research work is moving quickly, a client may want to receive the report two weeks early. This often isn’t realistic. However well the research may be proceeding, it may still take the allotted time to get the report out or put together a decent package of results.

A further peril arises if clients believe the advance of a project is a straightline event. Therefore, at the halfway point, they expect 50 percent of the work to be done. This is not reasonable. Most projects gather momentum, and everything may come together at the 7⁄8- or 9⁄10-mark on the timetable. Clients need to understand this and that is why it is sometimes important for the research supplier to be the one setting the briefing intervals. Unlike research in the lab with test tubes and thermometers, research among humans is not an exact science, thus clients need to understand that there is a measure of unpredictability, even when their research supplier has decades of experience.

Another danger of handing over results early on in the project is that they may be misleading in the context of the overall findings. One time, we were researching client satisfaction in a business-to-business market where the client had an installed base of customers and wanted to know their plans for renewing their equipment leases when these expired. Those interviewed during the first quarter of the project still seemed satisfied, but from the last three-quarters of the work, we learned between one-third and one-half of the customers were planning to switch and threatened never to do business with our client again. Had we handed over the substance of the early results, the client would have had false expectations.

It’s okay to say that the project is on-target, that 25 percent of the calls are completed, but very dangerous to start discussing what you’re finding. If, however, 80 to 90 percent of the work is completed, and it’s unlikely the balance of calls will substantially change the outcomes, meeting with the client and giving them more details won’t put you on dangerous ground. If you need to be able to rationalize in your own mind whether to speak up or remain silent as work moves along, remember that the client is paying for your process - your expertise, track record, methodologies, etc. The results are what come out of this process at the end.

Won’t be tripped up

This is why it is particularly important with clients you haven’t worked with previously to discuss their expectations, outline your process, identify some of the issues that may come up and how you normally deal with these to keep things on track. It’s a good idea with new clients to let them know that any progress briefings will be indicative but not conclusive. That way, you won’t be tripped up by their dreams while trying to guide them about realities out in the big, bad world.