I went back and forth about writing this post in case it seemed self-serving, but it’s a question that we get a lot, so I wanted to offer some guidelines to consider when choosing a vendor for a market research project.
1) What is the firm’s expertise?
Does the firm you are dealing with know anything about your target market? At Dimensional Research, we work exclusively with technology. Our researchers have spent their entire careers working with the people, processes, and technology used by Corporate IT, and I can say very confidently that we know our stuff.
This matters for two reasons. If it’s a technology-related research project: (1) We’ll get better results than any research firm that doesn’t know technology, because we’ll understand the language being used and the content it’s being used in. This means we do better follow up and analysis. (2) We won’t consume a lot of your team’s time with “hand-holding” while the researcher comes up to speed. We’ll dive right in and be productive immediately.
2) What is the researcher’s expertise?
Once you have found a firm that is a match, make sure you talk to the person who will be doing the actual research – conducting the interviews, moderating the focus groups, writing and analyzing the Web survey. Is that person an expert also? Not every researcher at a firm knows everything the firm has experience with. Ensure you have the right person or team of people doing the hands-on work or the experience the firm brings will be essentially irrelevant.
3) Does the firm demonstrate expertise in their own marketing?
So you think you’ve found a good market research firm? Now look critically at their marketing. This will depend to some degree on the project of course, so look at the appropriate items:
- If you have someone doing Web usability research, is their own Web site design usable?
- If you’re doing a message validation, how good is their messaging? Is it compelling? Did they understand your pain?
- If they’re doing competitive research, what do they know about their own competition and can they articulate a differentiator?
- If it’s a customer satisfaction project, how satisfied are their own customers? Do they track customer satisfaction? How?
4) Has the firm/researcher done a similar project before?
If the firm’s answer to this question is “yes,” get a reference call set up, or a very, very good reason why not to set up such a call. Researchers tend to develop very close relationships with their clients – during a project there is a lot of communication – and if you can’t get a reference, that’s a big red flag.
If the answer is “no,” that’s not necessarily a deal breaker – there is a first time for everything – but is your research firm honest about that? Are they willing to be open throughout the process so mistakes are caught early?
I’ll make a confession – the first time Dimensional Research tried using social media to recruit it didn’t go very well. We were still learning the ropes and didn’t understand where our audience was hanging out. But the client knew we were trying something new, and we had an extra two weeks built into the schedule to course correct. Good thing, because we needed it, but the end result was a very successful project.
5) THE MOST IMPORTANT ONE: How have they evolved their own business based on their research?
I was shocked to meet a fellow researcher recently who essentially hasn’t changed their business in ten years. If a research firm doesn’t fundamentally understand the value of research enough to use it to make their own business better, DO NOT hire them. A good researcher always has their research hat on for their own business. Dimensional Research treats every engagement as ongoing research into our own business to launch new products like our ROI analysis. We also constantly test our assumptions, as in this example of what we did with stipends.
The other great thing about question #5, is that it can be answered by any firm. One of the frustrations of market research is that the vast majority of our work is confidential, so it’s impossible to share our biggest successes. But any firm should be able to articulate how they use research to drive their own business.