Marketing Research Business Development: Challenges and Suggestions for Suppliers and Clients
by Stan Hazen
Recently, I saw a spirited discussion on LinkedIn about issues that client-side market researchers sometimes have with research suppliers’ business development efforts. One issue is the sheer number of unsolicited contacts that clients get from suppliers asking to schedule time to talk—often more requests than clients can even respond to, let alone have time to talk to. Another issue is that some suppliers approach and talk to potential new clients in ways that don’t make a great first impression.
That LinkedIn post and subsequent discussion apparently touched a nerve, as it rapidly sparked hundreds of comments and suggestions from client researchers as well as suppliers. It generated follow-up discussions within our office (a research firm), as I’m sure it did in other research firms and client companies. Even as some time has passed, I’ve found myself continuing to think about it, so here are a few thoughts I would like to share.
Current Dynamics in the Marketing Research World
There are a number of challenging forces at play right now in marketing research. First, as technology has continued to drastically change the worlds of information, communication, and marketing, the marketing research industry has been changing right along with them. There are new research uses and needs, new tools and platforms, new clients, and many new providers.
Second, there are more suppliers than ever, greater competition than ever among suppliers, and greater need for business development and selling.
Third, for many client-side researchers, their roles have become more demanding in recent years. Business decisions are made faster than ever, relying more and more on information and data and many researchers are being required to do more with less—less staff, less budget, and in less time.
So, at a time when client researchers have greater need for effective research partners, have more new things to learn about and stay up with, and are receiving more and more requests from suppliers, they have less time to spend on those things. And, on the other side, as research suppliers face greater competition and an increasing need to have conversations with potential new clients, clients have less time to do that.
All of this can make the business development process challenging and frustrating for clients and suppliers. Anything that might improve it could be helpful. Based largely on the researcher comments and suggestions in that LinkedIn discussion, below are a few ideas to think about.
Thoughts for Supplier-Side Researchers to Consider
Try not to be pushy or presumptuous when reaching out to clients. Yes, business development is part of our job as research suppliers, and we do have to reach out to potential new clients. But in business development or sales, it’s never good to be perceived as pushy. Be aware that some client researchers feel that it’s presumptuous when they get unsolicited contacts out of the blue, from someone they don’t know and who doesn’t know them, asking to schedule a 30-minute call. We might want to explore ways to soften those requests and not sound like we expect a reply, or that the client owes us one. Also, some number of attempts to contact a client is reasonable, but at some point we’re going to be perceived as hounding them. Many clients don’t have time to respond to every request, and some just aren’t going to respond. There comes a time to move on and try again later.
Before reaching out to a new potential client, know something about them. We should try to know something about the company, their products, and their competitors; about the person we’re contacting; and about current interests, problems, challenges, and needs. Do a little research or reading. Talk to someone who might be familiar with them. And use this knowledge when we reach out.
Try to personalize or customize client messages or emails. The more personalized or customized an email or phone message is, the more favorably it’s likely to be received. Avoid form letters or canned messages. And simply inserting their name often doesn’t make it seem, more personal.
It’s about them, not us. Suppliers should always remember to focus the discussion on understanding the client’s interests, problems, challenges, and needs, and talking about solutions. We shouldn’t talk on and on about our company, our products or services, our quality, etc. Clients tend to view that as boring and tiresome. We need to keep the focus on them.
Focus on one or two key topics. When communicating with clients, we should always try to focus on just one or two key topics and solutions not talk about 10 different ways we think we might be of help.
Ask questions and listen. When we have a chance to have a conversation with a client, we should have questions prepared in advance to help us understand important issues and explore solutions. And always listen. Listen actively. Listen to learn. Our listening and our questions demonstrate our thinking and build trust.
Thoughts for Client-Side Researchers to Consider
Let suppliers know what you’re interested in. If there’s a way to let suppliers know what issues or topics are most important to you, it might help reduce the number of requests you get, and make those that you do get more relevant and useful. A couple of suggestions from the LinkedIn discussion were to maybe use a canned email response or a canned voice mail message to let suppliers know what topics you’re interested in. Another idea was to write a brief personalized email response to suppliers who you choose to respond to, letting them know what your interests are, and inviting them to share their thoughts, ideas, or possible solutions.
Let suppliers know how you prefer to be contacted. If you prefer to be contacted by email rather than phone, for instance, consider how you might let suppliers know that. Again, maybe it’s in a canned email response or a canned message on your voice mail. Or tell them in a quick reply email.
Let suppliers know they might not be getting a response. To help reduce the number of requests you get, and the number of repeated attempts to contact you, you might try to let suppliers know that you’ll review all messages and information as you can and respond to those where you see a fit. Again, possibly in a canned email response or voice mail message, or in a quick reply email.
Just say no (or not at this time). Another idea to possibly reduce the number of repeated attempts to contact you is to just write a brief email response to those where you don’t see a fit and let them know. You might include a brief explanation if you’d like, or not. It will save both you and them time and effort going forward.
Don’t try to respond to every request. Some clients would like to respond to every contact or request they receive, and sometimes they feel guilty if they don’t. But, at the risk of sounding socially or professionally incorrect, I think most suppliers understand how busy clients can be and are not going to be offended if they don’t get a response to every unsolicited new business email they send. If they don’t get a response, they can always follow up.
Use staff as gatekeepers. Some client research directors have found it helpful to assign someone else in the department to screen or respond to requests from suppliers. New business calls or emails from suppliers are referred to that person, where they’re handled without requiring a lot of the director’s time.
Set specific days or times to speak to suppliers. Another suggestion for managing a large number of supplier requests is to consider inviting suppliers in on a regular basis (e.g., once a week, twice a month, once a month) to meet with you or your group. An application and selection process could be set up, and interested suppliers could be invited to apply. Another idea is to have “vendor days,” where a number of suppliers are invited in on the same day and can meet and speak with people in your group or throughout the company. Another system that works well for some clients is simply to set aside a couple of hours one day each week to talk to suppliers.
While research suppliers and clients depend on each other for their existence and usually work together extremely well, they can have challenging moments when it comes to that initial connection. If researchers are aware of and thinking about some of the issues and challenges on both sides, and sharing ideas for improvement, that's a good thing. Any improvement is a win for all.
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