There are many market research firms out there, from tiny consulting firms to huge multinational corporations. With all those choices, how do you find one that will best fit your company's needs?

Don't be intimidated. Be inquisitive. And ask these four questions of your next research supplier:

  1. Who, specifically, is going to do the work?

  2. What methods do you recommend for this project?

  3. How, exactly, will your proposed approach help me make marketing decisions?

  4. How do you report your research findings?

There is no single right or wrong answer to any of these questions. The nature of the project and the relationship you want with the firm will determine the "right" answers.

I'll explain why each question should matter to you and what to listen for in the research firm's answer.

1. Who, specifically, is going to do the work?

As with any service-oriented business, the people actually doing the work will have the greatest impact on the project's success or failure. That's why it's often said that you hire the people, not the company.

Meet the key players upfront so you can more clearly evaluate the firm's ability to deliver. It matters little that senior members of the firm are well-known industry leaders if they are not going to be involved in your project.

Establish your expectations for outcomes and process at the start. Make sure you are comfortable with how the firm responds to your expectations.

Also, evaluate how well those working on the project fit with your work style and company culture. Many projects have gone bad because the client team and the research team couldn't work well together, even though the actual work done by everyone involved was top-notch.

2. What methods do you recommend for this project?

The firm should be able to clearly communicate what the appropriate method is, how to best execute it, and why they recommend it. Do not settle for a vague description of the work to be done. Instead, use the following approach for this conversation.

First, communicate the main goals for the research project. Then, fill in as many specifics as you can about the product, the company's marketing and distribution channels, and what you already know about the market. This should give the firm enough information to describe, in detail, its data collection and analytic approach to meeting the objectives. Ask about the alternatives, and discuss the pros and cons of each. Be comfortable that the people you're asking to do the work are knowledgeable and experienced.

If the firm reps don't fully understand the objectives, they should stop the conversation at this point and ask you to clarify them. There are some situations, particularly if the project is truly exploratory in nature, when it makes sense to reserve judgment on some specifics of the analysis. If this is the case, the firm should be able to speak "hypothetically" about what could be done in different scenarios.

If a firm responds with a lot of technical or statistical jargon that confuses you, you should consider two things:

  1. They may be poor communicators.

  2. They are not sure of the proper methodology or approach.

A true expert is someone who can take a complex subject, such as statistical analysis, and describe it in plain language—language that is easily understood by people who do not have a Ph.D. in statistics.

3. How, exactly, will your proposed approach help me make marketing decisions?

Once the firm has outlined the general approach, insist it relate the specific techniques to be used directly to the research objectives. This does two things for you:

  1. Confirms that the firm fully and correctly understands the research objectives

  2. Allows you to assess the firm's ability to think strategically and its understanding of the application of the findings to your business

A research firm that understands your company's strategy and business issues will provide you with insight that you can actually use. Look for a firm that begins with the end in mind—a firm that sees the end not as the report they will deliver but the execution of the strategy developed using the research. That approach will allow them to provide the right information in the right form for you to make better decisions.

4. How do you report your research findings?

The research report must contain the appropriate analysis and conclusions, and it must be presented in a way that makes sense for your organization. The presentation of results must tell the story in the data. It must also speak clearly to the research objectives and provide useful, realistic direction for marketing decision-makers. This is why it's so important to hire a research firm that understands the marketing strategy behind the project.

You shouldn't expect the firm to share previous reports with you. After all, just about any report that a research firm produces is subject to non-disclosure provisions in the contract between the firm and its client. Instead, ask the firm to discuss its approach to report writing and perhaps some sample visuals of how they display data.

A well crafted report will have the following:

  • A format and tone that respects your company's culture

  • Charts and other graphics that clearly display rich information

  • Text that discusses implications and makes recommendations from data

* * *

Just as there is someone for everyone, there is a research firm for every project. Don't settle for a firm that happens to be available.

Systematically asking and evaluating the responses to these four questions will help you find that special firm.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ed Erickson is the principal of Erickson Market Research (https://www.ericksonmr.com), a full-service research consulting firm based in Chicago. Ed can be reached at ed@ericksonmr.com and 312.612.1950.