Over the course of my 15-plus year tenure at MedSurvey, a data collection company for healthcare and life science market research, I have worn many hats. Because I joined the company early on, when it was still quite small, I had the opportunity to become closely involved in nearly every aspect of the business, from finance to project management to business development—and just about everything in between. Now, simply by virtue of having been part of a fast-growing company for so many years, I can confidently say (without bragging, of course) that I have gone from “the IT expert” to “the expert on everything.” My colleagues joke that whenever a tricky question comes up, regardless of the business area, the answer is always “Ask Gen.” And there is one especially complex question from our business development team that comes up again and again. Because the question highlights just how vital transparency is to the market research process, I believe it is crucial that we address it not only within our own company but with our industry as a whole.

In short, the question is this: How do we, as sample companies, provide complete transparency to clients during the bidding process? The answer to this question may seem like a straightforward matter of honesty on our own part, and this is certainly a critical part of the equation. But what I’ve found through my many years of experience is that transparency is a two-way street. It is only when our clients are completely transparent with us about the complexity of a project that we can confidently provide full transparency on our own end.

Throughout our industry, there is a troubling lack of transparency in the client-vendor relationship, and admittedly the fault often falls on the shoulders of sample companies. But I would like to suggest to our clients an important way that you can help to minimize the problem. That is to be as forthcoming as possible with us about the details of your project, right from the beginning, even if those details may seem minor or irrelevant. I can assure you that those minor details often mean all the difference when it comes to the feasibility of your project.

Let me give an example. It’s not uncommon for a client to come to us asking if we can get data from, say, 100 oncologists. If we take this initial request at face value, then we might come back to our client and say, “Absolutely, no problem, we can fill that quota at relatively low cost.” But then as we are just about to put the project into field, we get the full list of “minor details.” As it turns out, we don’t simply need 100 oncologists. We need 100 oncologists who work in academic or teaching hospitals. And of those, they must be using a specific type of immunotherapy. Suddenly, we have a much smaller universe to work with. Not only that, we know that academic specialists will charge more to take surveys than oncologists will generally. And we know from extensive experience running similar projects for other clients that it will not be possible to hit the quota. With just the addition of a few “minor details,” we suddenly go from 100 to 60 possible completes, and at a higher price to boot.  

In this case, if we simply quoted based on the information we initially received from our client, it turns out that we would not have been transparent about either the feasibility or the cost of the project. But if our client had been completely transparent with us about the requirements for the project from the get-go, we could have had an open and honest conversation about what was truly possible for us to deliver. It’s worth noting that sometimes our clients may not have all the details about the project upfront. While this may limit the detailed information that can be presented to us at the RFP stage, a conversation about possible or open-ended requirements should still take place.

Therefore, my advice to our clients is this: Expose us to as many details as possible when requesting proposals for a project, even if they seem unimportant. If you needed to get your house remodeled, you wouldn’t expect an accurate estimate by saying only that it is 3,000 square feet. By the same token, we as sample companies cannot put together accurate proposals without knowing all the parameters of your project. Send a summary of exactly what your pharmaceutical client is looking for, and don’t be afraid to ask your client if there are any details about the project that you haven’t yet received. The more we know to start, the more transparent we can be with you upfront, which in turn allows you to manage expectations and costs and to ensure that your projects go as smoothly as possible. In short, when it comes to sharing details, more is better. 

Recently I was involved with a project that demonstrates just how important this two-way street of transparency can be for our clients. As is often the case when our business development team has questions about how to handle proposals for complex projects, the answer in this case was (you guessed it) “Ask Gen.” We had received a request for a proposal from a potential client but felt that the information we had was incomplete. When we asked for more details and saw the specific list of physicians the client wanted to reach, I knew that of the 400 completes they were requesting, it would only be possible to get 300. We decided to come to the potential client and consult with them about the project to set realistic expectations. In the end, however, the project was awarded to another company who looked only at the less-detailed initial information and promised that they could meet the quota for less. Not surprisingly, they were unable to do so, and the client came back to us in a panic at the last minute. In the end we were able to get them the 300 completes we had initially projected, but unfortunately it was too late to meet their deadline. Because they had omitted key details at the beginning of the process, transparency broke down on both sides, and the project ended up costing them far more time, money, and headaches than necessary.   

Our clients are hired by their pharmaceutical clients for their expertise in reporting and analytics, and we are in turn hired for our expertise in recruiting and data collection. We are good at getting results, but we also know exactly what can go wrong and how difficult it can be to hit certain quotas. Data collection companies want to be completely upfront with you about what we can do and how we will get it done. It’s important to us to be as honest as possible in setting expectations and providing reasonable quotes. And the more details you give us about the variables involved in a research project, the more transparent we can be with you. In the end, when we are both transparent with each other, we not only save time and money, but we build trusting, mutually beneficial relationships—and improve the way our industry functions.