When I first came to MedSurvey four years ago as Vice President of Business Development (and the first and only salesperson in the company’s history), I was a complete newcomer to the market research industry. Previously, I had worked in sales for major companies and logos, selling media and advertising solutions on a national scale and managing multi-million-dollar budgets. But with respect to market research, I was an outsider with very little knowledge of the industry. As a result, for the first six months of my new career at MedSurvey, I set out to learn everything I could about the industry, to understand how and why clients worked with us, to uncover the gaps, and to get a good understanding from clients about their needs and expectations. What I found not only surprised me—it baffled me.
Through many eye-opening conversations with clients, I discovered that throughout the industry as a whole, there is an overwhelming lack of transparency in the client-vendor relationship. Specifically, the clients I spoke with had come to expect that when they received bids on a project, they would likely not be provided with specific details about the strategy that would be deployed to complete the project. Frequently, clients were not informed about whether the sample companies they employed would be partnering with other companies, much less which companies these would be. In fact, even after completion of the project, some vendors would still refuse to share the identities of their partners. This practice is particularly problematic given that some sample companies have been blacklisted by end-clients for poor-quality or fraudulent data, and clients need to know that these companies have not been involved in the project.
Often, when I asked clients about their expectations from panel companies, they would chuckle and say that when a vendor promised them that a project was fully feasible or that they could deliver results in a specified amount of time, they as clients simply had to take this promise with a grain of salt. It was not unusual for them to receive bids with multiple caveats, or to find that on Day 6 of 10, the vendor they had hired was only a third of the way through the project. I came to understand that in many cases research companies were putting together quotes without any firm plan in place for how they would complete the project. As a partner to other vendors, I found that it was not uncommon for companies to come to us, asking us to “top-off” a project, when there were only one or two days remaining before the deadline. It seemed that, in many cases, they had begun the project by simply guessing -- or hoping -- that they could do so with the help of partner companies, without first reaching out to their partner network to determine feasibility.
This lack of transparency and accountability was entirely contrary to my prior experience in other industries. In my previous work, it was standard practice to provide clients with fully researched and comprehensive sales strategies and budgets. To use a simple example, if a client were investing millions into an advertising campaign during football season, it would be unacceptable to offer vague promises that the campaign would be well-executed. Every detail would need to be laid out honestly and upfront. Which stations would the ad run on? When would the time slot be? Who and how many people would be listening to this station at this time? We needed to provide comprehensive information on every aspect of our strategy. Our clients expected no less than full transparency throughout the sales process, and we made sure to deliver on this expectation.
So, as an outsider to this industry, I want to tell market research clients that I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you so often experience a lack of transparency and accountability from the vendors that you hire. I’m sorry that you have grown to expect that you will not always get all the information you need about your project. I share your confusion and frustration, and I believe that you have every right to expect and demand better.
With that said, I would like to make some suggestions for our clients on steps that can help ensure that our industry becomes better aligned in terms of expectations:
The most important question that you, as a client, can ask when a company bids on a project is, “What is your strategy for completing this?” This simple question accomplishes two things—it helps to ensure that there is indeed a strategy in place, and it starts to condition vendors that you require transparency. If a company is unwilling to share its strategy or says it does not yet have one, this should immediately raise a red flag. Before investing in a project, you should have the right to be sure that you are being told not just what you want to hear, but what you need to hear.
A second question you should feel comfortable asking is, “Who are (or will be) your partners on this project?” In many cases, the sample company that you hire will need to manage several other partnering companies in order to make a project fully feasible. But if they have not planned for this ahead of time, they may keep the project exclusive to themselves for too long, only to find at the last minute that they need to reach out to their partner network. This practice often comes at the expense of the project, or at the very least delays it. In addition, when you know exactly which companies are working on a project, you can ensure that only high-quality, high-integrity companies are involved.
I know that these expectations are reasonable and necessary because I have seen them in action in other industries, and because I adhere to them in my own work at MedSurvey. While no company is perfect, MedSurvey included, before my team and I bid on a project, we make it our responsibility to go to our partners, determine feasibility from multiple sources, and put together an informed strategy and budget. We then take that information and share it upfront with potential clients.
Our clients provide a high level of consulting and guidance to their own clients in their areas of expertise. When they in turn seek out sample companies for our expertise in field research, feasibility, and recruitment strategies, why should we not be expected to provide the same high level of consulting and guidance? I firmly believe that it is not only our responsibility, but it is in our industry’s long-term best interest to set clear expectations, provide thorough transparency, and hold one another accountable. None of us should expect anything less.
Until this becomes the standard, all I can say is “I’m sorry.”