One of the most critical decisions when organizing a market research project is choosing the right vendor. Now, I can practically see the red warning light going off in everyone’s mind right now: “Why should I take advice from a vendor about choosing the right vendor? Won’t they just tell me to choose them?” Well, the answer may surprise you, because as it turns out, not necessarily. So I’ll ask you to bear with me here. One of the things that we talk about a lot is the recent trend towards the commodification of market research. And I can see how it is tempting to jump on that bandwagon. Commodification is streamlining; it reduces costs, and it simplifies the process. However, we believe that this trend, while cost effective in the short run, is detrimental to such a value-added practice as understanding the psyche of your customer. In an increasingly connected and competitive world, no one can afford to sacrifice creativity and depth in marketing strategy. Unfortunately, the current paradigm in market research procurement is commodity purchasing. We propose a new paradigm for choosing the vendor that best meets your needs, and someone who can be a long-term partner. First, let’s uncover some specific practices that define what it means to be a good consultative partner:

1. Advising role: Market research partners are seen as people who can help you reach your objective. This involves building a strong relationship that allows the vendor to understand what is going on within your organization as well as other research projects that might inform your current efforts. This elevates your partners from project managers to advisers.

2. Sets expectations: A good way to judge whether a vendor truly wants the best for your organization is whether they set realistic expectations. No, the research is probably not going to change the world, and anyone who tells you that it will is just trying to sell projects. Being upfront and honest about the reality helps avoid the dangers of becoming too dependent on research. Sometimes being told what you won’t get out of the research is what’s needed.

3. Knows when to say no: A good partner will know when to advocate against a research project when it is clearly not advantageous to your organization. It could be that the research is too premature for the current objectives of the brand, or it could be that the objectives could be met through other means besides research. The bottom line is that if a vendor pushes back on a project, this shows that they have a vested interest not just in themselves, but in your organization’s success as well.

4. Service-oriented: A good partner will want to provide a service that goes beyond the specific tasks that they’re being paid to do. Partners are eager to share their unique perspective in order to help support your decisions. They want to understand your needs and calibrate their service in order to meet those needs. And, most importantly, they want to make you look good within your organization. Your success translates to their success, so they will do what they can to elevate you and your company. It’s important to remember that no two vendors are the same. There are some who are more partner-oriented, and there are some that simply offer commoditized, boilerplate research projects. In order to have an edge in both understanding your customer and making the best strategic decisions, try looking for these differences when choosing your consultants.

Ellen Hart is a Senior Associate Consultant at Vivisum Partners. She specializes in in-depth qualitative research in healthcare and nonprofit fields.

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