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For Research Suppliers, Actions Speak Louder than Advertising

No matter how much research vendors schmooze at trade shows, run expensive advertising, create detailed listings in research directories, and have expensive websites touting their capabilities, many don’t really demonstrate that they want my business by their actions.



By Ron Sellers, 

Everyone says they want more business.  But how many research vendors make it easy for clients to give them business?

Grey Matter Research partners with telephone field centers when we have a phone survey to complete.  Normally we like to have three or four vendor options, but for various reasons we recently found ourselves down to one.  So I decided to send out a couple of live RFPs to explore some different potential vendors.

Because we sometimes have very large projects (e.g. 3,500 completes), we only targeted field centers that promoted at least 80 phone stations, going through an industry resource listing to find likely targets.  We decided to start with price competitiveness, and then explore a small subset of potential vendors more carefully once we were comfortable that their pricing would be reasonable.  We gave vendors about a week to respond to the two RFPs.

We looked at the following 16 companies:

  • Bernett Research Services
  • Clearwater Research
  • Customer Research International
  • Directions in Research
  • Galloway Research Service
  • Harmon Research Group
  • I/H/R Research Group
  • Issues and Answers Network
  • McMillion Research Service
  • NORS Surveys
  • Precision Opinion
  • Research America Market Research Solutions
  • Survey Technology & Research Center
  • Thoroughbred Research Group
  • VuPoint Research
  • Wiese Research Associates

What happened next was a fascinating exercise.  Since we have found that some company listings on research directories are not updated frequently, the first start was each firm’s website to find a contact person.  You would think research vendors would make it easy to submit an RFP, wouldn’t you?

One company that supposedly operated 100 CATI stations had no mention of telephone research at all on their website, and no e-mail or phone number for anything other than a panel help desk.  Other companies made it difficult to find a real person to contact, giving only “[email protected]” or “[email protected]” generic e-mail addresses.  I’ve had a lot of experience with e-mails to those generic addresses being ignored for days at a time, which didn’t give me a confident start, but they got included in the bid process anyway.

Two firms provided no e-mails at all, giving only an online contact form to be filled out.  Since the RFPs were fairly detailed and already in PDF form, I wanted to attach the documents.  One vendor had no way to attach any files – everything would have to be re-typed into their form (which I was not about to do).  I used the form to explain the situation, asking for an e-mail to which I could send the RFPs.

They never responded.

The second one did have a way to include attachments, but with each attempt I was informed that the file type was not valid (both were simple PDFs).  After multiple attempts I gave up.

This eliminated three companies from our original list of 16, leaving RFPs going out to 13 firms.  Of these 13:

  • One did not respond at all – no bid, no acknowledgement, no polite declination of the opportunity, nothing.
  • One responded a day later to thank us for the opportunity, and promised a response by our deadline. They never did follow up with an actual bid and we never heard from them again.
  • One gave their first response (which also include their bids) three days after the deadline (we were told the person we sent the e-mail to was on vacation, but wouldn’t you think they’d be checking that in-box a little more frequently?).
  • One acknowledged our e-mail two days later, although they did provide a bid one hour before the deadline.
  • One responded three days later, although they did provide a bid well before the deadline.
  • Only nine acknowledged our RFPs on the same day they were sent.

In all, we received 10 bids (although one company bid on only one project, completely ignoring the second RFP without explanation).  Interestingly, although we provided almost a week for responses, one of the bids came in three days late, and five more arrived within two hours of the deadline (including one that considered 5:30 pm to be “end of day” – really stretching things a bit).  All told, just five of the 13 vendors acknowledged the RFP the same day they received it and sent a response that wasn’t bumping right up against the deadline, and only eight of the 13 ended up fully responding to both RFPs by the deadline.

Some of the vendors called or e-mailed with additional questions, or just to introduce themselves.  One who did so asked such basic questions it was obvious he hadn’t even really read the RFPs (e.g. “You want this done by phone?”).  It was no surprise when their bid came in five times as expensive as anyone else’s, and required two months to complete 400 interviews at 80% incidence.

Based on this exercise and on many years in the industry, I offer some suggestions for all research vendors (not just field centers):

  • Make it easy for me to find a contact person on your website, rather than generic e-mail addresses or contact forms. Vendor relationships are all about relationships with people, not with companies.  I can’t build a relationship with a corporate office.
  • Make it easy for me to submit an RFP. Make sure the e-mail addresses on your website and on directory listings are correct.  If you do use an online contact form, make sure I can attach files, and be certain the form actually works.  If you do provide an e-mail address, see that inbox is checked frequently or forwarded to someone who’ll respond in a timely manner.
  • Show your interest by acknowledging my RFP within a reasonable time period.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask me questions. It impresses me when someone thinks through my project enough to have questions or make suggestions, rather than just making assumptions which may turn out to be wrong.
  • But if you do ask me questions, be sure they’re relevant. If the RFP specifies a methodology and sample size, please don’t waste my time by asking me the methodology and sample size.
  • If you’re not interested or unable to take the project, fine – but have the courtesy and professionalism to let me know. Do that and I may consider you for other projects.  Ignore me and I’ll gladly return the favor.  Or worse yet, I’ll let colleagues at other companies know what my experience was with you.

This last suggestion may raise some vendor objections, but I’ll make it anyway.  If possible, don’t wait until the last second to submit your bid.  I know you may be busy and I know that 4:30 pm qualifies as “end of day” and therefore you have met the requirements of the RFP, but if on our very first contact you’re sneaking things in under the wire after nearly a week to work on it, it suggests to me that this is what our relationship will be like if you get the project.  It’s one thing if I give you a tight timeline to respond to an RFP, but I give you four or five days and you’re still barely hitting the deadline?

When I have a variety of vendor options, do you want me to know you met the requirements of the RFP, or do you want me to view you as someone going the extra mile and not waiting until the last minute?  Would you rather your bid stand out as the only one I’m reviewing a day before the deadline, or one of five I get in at the same time an hour before they’re due?  Do you want to meet the requirements or do you want to impress me?

Some of these vendors did impress me with their responsiveness, their cordiality, their insightful questions, their detailed responses, their follow up, and occasionally even their pricing.  I’ve identified a couple I want to learn more about, and we may end up doing business together.  But I also had confirmed for me that no matter how much research vendors schmooze at trade shows, run expensive advertising to claim they want my business, create detailed listings in various research directories, and have expensive websites touting their capabilities, many don’t really demonstrate that they want my business by their actions.

And as Mom always pointed out, actions speak much louder than words.

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10 responses to “For Research Suppliers, Actions Speak Louder than Advertising

  1. Thank God we’re not in that business. Would hate to be included in an RFP going to 16 companies!

    I think a true research partnership takes work from both sides, everyone gets a lot of spam these days which eats up time. We only respond to serious inquiries from real company emails, ideally the client who contacts us does a little homework too. This goes both ways. I think it’s great to see more of these articles considering viirous perspectives.

  2. Ron, Your post concerns a larger issue of basic business etiquette. I’ve sent countless messages to prospective clients without receiving a response. Manners are manners.

    Honesty counts as well. If I don’t want to bid on your proposal, or don’t have time, I should inform you right away, That’s no reflection on whether I want your business. It may simply reflect the fact that I have other commitments, and ethics require that I keep those commitments. If we had a contract to work together, you would expect me to prioritize that work ahead of chasing potential new business. I would expect that as well. Accounting sees things the same way: real money is more important than hypothetical money.

    The other part of honesty is that the client be open about the RFP process. If you are running a “cattle call,” sending the RFP to 20+ companies, I probably don’t want to waste my time on it. If you have already selected a vendor and are soliciting additional bids because your purchasing department requires it, I need you to provide a god reason to write it. Proposal submission isn’t supposed to resemble buying a lottery ticket, and an intelligent research professional should steer clear when it does.

    If you apply game theory to the bidding process, it’s easy to see that certain procedures (cattle calls and reverse auctions) will discourage participation by the better and more innovative research vendors — typically, the people you probably want. You might save a few bucks (and with reverse auctions, probably not — there’s a mathematical proof for that), but you will pay in other ways.

  3. I think Vic’s comments are appropriate to your exercise, since all vendors are irritated at being suckered into a cattle call bid situation. I no longer run a phone center but my many years of experience taught me to find a few reliable suppliers, with known capabilities and cost structure and then nourish the relationships.
    The article is still extremely informative, even though I disagree with the premise.

  4. Technically what you were asking for here was an RFQ (Request for Quote) rather than a true RFP (Request for Proposal). But in a commodity field like this there is a lot of competition on price, and therefore also a lot of price shopping and competitive intelligence (spying) on price I would assume. I agree with almost everything Vic said, except that they have an obligation to get back to you. Today no one has an obligation to get back to anyone in regard to unsolicited email one way or the other. Again, I think it depends what the RFQ looked like, how professional it looked, if it looked like the cattle call it was, I certainly don’t blame them for ignoring it completely.

  5. A week to respond to two RFPs is not enough time for a thoughtful review, asking questions, and/or scheduling a call to respond, and formulating a thoughtful response.

    Also there is the practical consideration that if a company is very good — and you want a very good company — then give them enough time to fit this into their client commitments. Because you wouldn’t want your supplier prioritizing bidding on new work while they were working on your projects, right?

  6. Tom, even with unsolicited email, I will respond to indicate whether I am interested or not the first time I receive a message. If not and if the sender chooses to ignore that response, and continues to bombard me, they they get routed to the spam folder. Basically, this policy combines the wisdom of two oft quoted maxims”
    (1) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” and
    (2) “You can’t fix stupid.”

  7. A professional request from a professional individual/firm always warrants a professional response. A curt “send us some info”, “what are your costs”, “give me a demo tomorrow” etc. without additional information and/or from a Hotmail account certainly does not.

  8. When we went out to these vendors, we didn’t say, “Hey, you’re one of 16 companies we’re considering.” The RFPs were specific to two projects, not generic “send us some info” fishing expeditions.

    And for anyone concerned that this was just a “cattle call” exercise or that it was somehow unfair to vendors, note that this was a legitimate exercise we did while looking for one or two new vendors. Only after the exercise did I decide to turn it into a blog post. And we did actually end up working with one of the vendors that proved to be responsive to our request.

  9. Hi Ron,

    I wouldn’t expect you to commit any of the abuses discussed. You’re an experienced professional whose been through some of the wars with the rest of us. However, a lot of seasoned veterans have bailed. My all time favorite focus group moderator now is a realtor. Two of my favorite clients are in manufacturing (tools and auto parts). The new cadre of researchers has been through a different process of socialization, resulting in different perceptions of proper behavior.

    You are absolutely correct that vendors can make life difficult, and websites for many companies are out of date. With outsourcing of web design and maintenance, and increased employee turnover, a lot of companies are no longer naming executives or contacts on their site. It’s a nuisance.

    My point is simply that abuses run both ways, and corporate clients contribute to the current culture and abuses.

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