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Do MR Clients Always Recognize Quality When They See it?

Are clients somehow less able to discern quality research, or are researchers thinking of the issue wrongly and clients are simply basing their supplier and methodological decisions on other factors that are more aligned with business needs?


Editor’s Note: It’s interesting to watch as certain topics take the center stage periodically within the MR industry social sphere. The topic du jour is around what drives the selection of techniques and vendors from the client perspective. The conversation encompasses concerns around quality, rigor, price, business models, standards, etc… ad infinitum ad nauseum. The frustrating aspect of this debate is that few seem to want to hear the client view on the issue, as if the client perspective is somehow less valuable since it’s “tainted” by.. (gasp!)… business realities vs. the ivory tower purity of the scientific method that all “good” research is based on. I suspect we’ll be having the same debate when client organizations have long since moved on to mass neural implant psychography delivered via Google Glasses as a mainstay of data collection.

In today’s post client-side researcher (and noted “NewMR Agnostic”)  Edward Appleton shares his view on the issue and it’s a doozy of a piece. I wish we had more clients that would share like this, and I wish even more that more suppliers would actually listen.

Before delving into Edward’s post I’d encourage you to read Ray Poynter’s recent post on status quo bias, Reg Baker’s take away from MRMW that Edward cites below, and a lively debate happening on the NewMr Linked Group on “To what standard should NewMR be held?” which itself was prompted by a series of tweets by me last week regarding my concern with the dismissive attitude of some firms with new approaches before they even get a chance to evolve.

I’ve been very lucky over the past few months to talk to A LOT of client side researchers and work with some on a very deep basis regarding this issue. What I have learned is that our navel gazing and pissing matches hold no interest for them. The bottom line for the folks that pay the bills boils down to 3 things:

  1. Business need
  2. Fit for purpose
  3. Efficacy

Those factors are what are most important and it’s those criteria more than anything else that clients are using to judge where their budgets will be spent. Concomitant with that troika is that they expect us as business partners to constantly be innovating to find new ways to more effectively meet their needs and a quality product delivered Cheaper, Faster, Better is table stakes folks; it always has been and always will be. Commercial research is about delivering value and impact on a continual basis, and we happen to be living in a time that there are now multiple paths to get those results that may or may not fit into the classical definition of market research but sure as hell deliver parts of what clients need.

Regarding the implications that clients are somehow less able to discern “quality” I’ll leave you with three thoughts before Edward delves deeper into this argument.

First, follow the money. Investors tend to bet on sure things that have significant growth potential; I’m not seeing much investment happening in “traditional” market research but I see a whole lot happening in technology providers, advanced analytics, and anything that has to do with “data convergence”.

Secondly people who throw good money after bad rarely stay employed and client side researchers have a vested interest in ensuring that what they do IS of the highest quality while meeting business objectives. They simply wont stay employed if they don’t. These “NewMR” companies with new approaches are making money and growing; clients are spending with them and based on the rapid growth of many they are spending a lot. Seems to me that indicates that these firms are meeting the 3 criteria I listed above while also passing the quality test.

Last, considering that many client-side researchers were originally on the supplier-side and made the leap over, or that many former client-side researchers often wind back up on the supplier side, isn’t it a bit self-denigrating to somehow imply they are less able to make good judgements about what works and what doesn’t? The whole argument is specious and disingenuous.

Enough out of me. Here is Edward. Enjoy!


By Edward Appleton

I’ve just been reading  through the most recent update of Jeffrey Henning’s bi-weekly GreenBook  round-up of the most RT’d Market Research Tweets.

One caught my eye: ranked 3rd, a blog piece by the venerable Reg Baker  giving his 4 key take-outs from the recent MRMW Conference in Cincinnati. It’s an interesting blog, but what kept my attention longer was the  introductory sentence from Mr. Henning:

…And I’m going to start calling this next quote from him Reg’s Law! “Clients will buy cheap data over good data every time.”

Wow. Couple of issues here from this Client-side Researcher before I go on to the main topic – Quality from an MR Client perspective.

  • Jeffrey’s quotation is actually a shortened version of what Reg actually said:

.”..clients sooner or later will buy cheap data over good data every time”

The words “sooner or later” are omitted – maybe to save space. Whatever the reason, the shorter version to me is a selective, truncated quotation that suggests that the whole piece is about Clients buying cheap – whereas in fact if you read the blog, it’s pretty balanced, critiquing Clients and Suppliers in equal measure.

  • Creating a new name for this quotation –  “Reg’s Law” –  sounds funny. But how funny is it actually – a law that effectively says that clients are cheapskates? I’d push back on this for many reasons – not the least of which being that oblique client-bashing in public isn’t helpful.

Moving to the central “accusation” – that MR clients will, over time, sacrifice quality for price, I’d say the following:

1. Like any purchasing decision, if 3 or more competitive bids are relatively similar on performance criteria,  then price will obviously become an important factor. This is a Supplier problem, not a Client problem.

Added to this: when supply outstrips demand, then prices will invariably fall. With the advent of so many new options in the MR toolkit, it would seem that MR supply is at least expanding. Suppliers might wish to find ways to address this.

2. USPs may seem a thing of the past – but when relevant, they can be very valuable in justifying a price position.

How many MR Agencies have a very powerful USP that is well understood in the market, and commands a price premium? If you were a provider of a CPG brand, this would be a mandatory to aim for.

3. Marginal superiority in performance terms on its own will seldom justify a clearly higher price point.

4. “Quality” in MR needs to be made meaningful to the Buyer.

Quality is a very complex topic for MR with many aspects – and one that many people feel strongly about, rightly so. From the Client perspective, quality needs to be tightly linked to value and impact. Defining quality narrowly via supposedly superior methodologies is seldom enough.

5. Branding is an aspect which is often undervalued in the MR industry.

Yes, branding is a long-term play, and requires consistent investment, but it’s extremely important. Reputation is tightly linked to value perceptions and often pricing power. This is a topic in itself, as branding is about culture, not just about a logo. However, I can only think of a very few MR Agencies that I would say are really strong, well managed brands.

6. Pitting “cheap data” against “good data” misses the point.

If something is low-cost but good enough as fit for purpose for a particular business situation, then it’s good value. Cheap doesn’t necessarily equate with bad.

Value arises or exists in the eye of the beholder. If Clients can’t see clear value, then why should they pay a perceived premium?

We’d all do well to understand how key MR outputs – our “insights” – are valued by a whole range of stakeholders, in order to best understand our  value propositions, and maximize the value derived. Unless we really get to the crux of MR impact, we won’t adequately be able to address the pricing or value question.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Please share...

11 responses to “Do MR Clients Always Recognize Quality When They See it?

  1. Brilliantly put, Edward, as usual. It’s funny, I literally sat back in my chair and may have even said “whoa” when I read that very same comment. I decided to let it go because I’m not as brave as you are. Plus I’m just a lazy client who doesn’t like thinking.

    Jokes jokes. . .

    It’s interesting. I spent some time today talking with my Insights colleagues internally about how we need to try very hard to avoid self-righteousness. I think we believe we’re smarter than most of the organization and that if they’d only listen to us, we’d have far fewer problems collectively. I think every insights team I’ve ever worked on has felt this way (and let’s be honest, a big part of me thinks it’s actually true).

    And yet. The “clients are idiots” subtext that I have seen from time to time in more supplier-friendly forums is misinformed, offensive, and frankly exhausting.

    I love my job. I love it because it stretches both my brain power and my emotional and social intelligence – my analytical and strategic thinking skills. . . everything. I’m increasingly certain – as time goes by – that I like it more than I’d like a supplier-side job. . . what with the having to listen to bossy, self-righteous clients and all. . .

    I work with a lot of brilliant suppliers, and I actually have a mandate from above to ONLY hire suppliers who “are smarter than us.” That said. . . they’re not all smarter – I can promise you that. And the ones who THINK they’re smarter? well. . . they’re usually the ones to worry about.

  2. @ Edward: very interesting post, thank you. I like the equation cheaper not equal to bad research, as sometimes market research services can be provided by organizations located in countries where costs are lower and consequently prices are cheaper.

    @ Tiffany, very useful approach to search and hire suppliers smarter than Client’s insight team but what I have experienced is that the best output is really derived by a team work whereby both Supplier and Client collaborate to address specific business problems. The Supplier can provide innovative research approaches and useful findings, but they can be very effectively boosted and integrated in Client’s business decision making by the knowledge that the Insight team has usually already available. An antagonostic approach whereby suppliers are expected to deliver the entire truth to clients without their (=clients) involvement is doomed to fall short of delivering full value to clients. We (clients and suppliers) are intelligent beings and the value of our joint efforts towards a shared goal is almost always greater than the sum of single contributions towards the same goal.

  3. @tiffany – do you think the supplier/ client side divide is something that needs more focus? I wonder to what extent a) if we represent a sort of value-chain and b) if yes, would it be stronger if more joined up.

    @luca – I agree in theory, but in practice there are sometimes/often gaps to the extent that MR suppliers actually etiher can, or wish to, deliver “the full added value” to a client agenda through consultancy style inputs. Maybe that’s the way it should be – perhaps – but given certain key trends – commoditisation of methodologies, for example, and the widespread availaiblity of sampling through eg SM – I wonder if it is a model that will continue for the long term. We all need to a) see the river and b) become good at swimming in the new waters.

  4. Sorry for the delay. . .

    My gut reaction is no – we don’t need to keep talking about it. We SHOULD continue to police it when it comes up – it’s misinformed and unacceptable. This relationship doesn’t work without mutual respect.

    That said, if our objective is strong working relationships, I already have excellent relationships with most of my suppliers. The suppliers who treat me like an idiot don’t usually get the job in the first place, and if they do, they don’t last. Seems to me the benefit of talking about it further is to get some sort of validation from folks who say these things, “No, you’re right, Tiff, you are smart, after all.” Whatever. Save it.

    As you can perhaps see, I’m also just a little impatient with the discourse today. . .

  5. As a client, it’s interesting to read the industry push for vendors towards innovation and added-value. I find that suppliers are very intent on proving their value over competitors based on their technology, proprietary models, etc., to the detriment of delivering the basics for a reasonable value.

    For me, the value of a vendor depends on the type of project; for straightforward data such as market assessments or brand A/U, “Keep it simple.” For complex projects, “Make it simple.” Their added value comes from their ability to distill and simplify data. For example, a succinct, well-done video montage highlighting key themes is valuable whether it was traditional focus groups, online focus groups, video journals or mobile-enabled shop-alongs. A convoluted, 100+ page report that is not clear and accessible to everyone in our organization is a waste of money regardless of the methodology. Sometimes I feel the pressure to “tell a compelling story” overrides answering our question.

  6. Kacey made the point: for complex project, “make it simple”; for common projects “keep it simple”. Ok. But the rule is good for evaluating the research suppliers you have already chosen. The rules driving the choice of a new supplier should be “a priori”. I would suggest the following two rules. First go to the supplier who has a record of successes; i. e. many of jobs done in the past (of the same kind you are asking for), and never failed. Second, choose a supplier who is willing to work with you. There are many, i guess, but not so many who have invested on your Company and your markets and have shown to you some delightful pieces of their work. A good chef,sure of his product, could offer you to taste his “Sacher Torte”. Just a bit; to give you an idea.
    Promotions are not so widespred in our industry. I think they should
    Happy to have met you in this occasion


  7. Great discussion for a thought-provoking piece.

    I think the reason there appear to be few USPs is that carving out real differentiation is very difficult. We all need to try for distinctiveness at least, and this is a good reminder.

    Speaking from a primarily qualitative perspective, I am finding it frustrating to be regularly asked to be part of a bidding process, “we want innovative options”, where the purchasing process requires three bidders. The price differences between firms of comparable capability are going to be small indeed, and probably too small to be relevant in the context of the whole project spend. I think this process tend to undermine the potential gains from developing strong relationships with a handful of suppliers who really get to know the firm.

    Put another way… women who want awesome haircuts pay more. It’s helpful to have a cutter that knows your hair, and you have a long term relationship with. The ones with real styling ability and top notch skills charge more and earn it. Ultimately, if you don’t want to pay, you find another cutter — you don’t RFP hoping for a price cut.

    I still believe my best work is done with clients that collaborate with me more fully — provide context, give me a clearer idea of budget needs, etc. For them, I work hard to ensure I provide as much value for a dollar as I possibly can.

    Re promotional pricing: on a few occasions I have suggested a methodology that is either new to us, or I am not 100% certain will nail great results. In these circumstances, I offer massive discounts and explain why. I have also waived charges if something didn’t work as expected (e.g. a recent mobile exercise as an adjunct to groups).

    Finally, I loved the comments about distilling and simplifying data. It reinforces what I think clients want, and it was nice to hear it put so clearly.

  8. I can comment only on the provider side of this equation, since my organization focuses on helping research providers work a little easier, and manage their firms a little better.

    A close relative of quality is often “proof,” so research organizations need easy yet effective ways to show what they’ve done and who else they’ve done it for. Having complete visiblity of your client history is a great way to do this; you’re well-positioned for the burden-of-proof clients expect.

    Quality can’t come at the expense of the firm’s profit …. so the firm’s view of quality is knowing the work done for that client, or similar work for like clients, has been profitable. Or if there are ways to make delivery of quality work even more profitable. Again, some kind of insight into past work is helpful, especially clues that reveal what impacted the ultimate quality (like the original scope, who was involved, actual effort, etc.)

    An informed research organization proves quality results to clients, and achieve quality results for themselves.

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