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Keep Ahead in Business: Commissioning UK Market Research

Summary, Original market research can be essential for businesses seeking to gain or maintain a competitive advantage. However, many would-be clients do not know how to go about commissioning research.

This article assists UK-based business-owners and new marketers to commission their first piece of original research and will help overseas buyers understand how to negotiate a supplier dialogue when they need research in the UK.

Where Can I Buy Market Research?

Trained UK researchers belong to the Market Research Society (‘MRS’), so visit the MRS website and search through their list of member organizations under the heading ‘Research Buyers’ Guide’. Look for ‘Full-Service Agencies.’
Don’t be daunted by a large number of research organizations available. It’s reassuring to know that you have lots of high-quality suppliers available.

Selecting Suppliers
Look for suppliers who instill a feeling of confidence. Ads from certain suppliers can deliver this immediately by presenting themselves in a friendlier or more authoritative manner than others. If no specific advertisements stand out, however, then you’ll need to select merely according to other criteria.

Some further pointers for supplier selection:

• Suppliers should have researchers with Full Membership of the MRS. Lower-level MRS memberships or memberships of other marketing organizations will give no guarantee of quality or competence. If you try to source research suppliers without using the MRS’ own publications or online resources, be very careful.

Actively steer clear of establishments whose senior personnel are not MRS Full Members, however good they appear, as many broad-spectrum marketers and academic establishments claim to offer market research yet lack the expertise to run effective programs.

• Check that suppliers deliver the type of research needed. Will it be numbers-based ‘quantitative research’ where you’ll receive a set of tabulations and statistics? Or do you require more opinion-based ‘qualitative’ research to give a depth of insight into customers’ or users’ views, without a rigid, structured, ‘tick-box’ style questionnaire?

• Explained in simple terms, qualitative research gets face-to-face with your customers or target market, posing challenging open-ended questions one-to-one in ‘depth interviews’ or via small ‘focus groups’. This won’t give statistical data since only quantitative offers this, but it will deliver quality in-depth insights and enlightening verbatim comments.

Qualitative research is instrumental in areas such as developing new branding or logos, exploring product quality or service issues, and in evaluating customer satisfaction and retention. It’s also an absolute must in new product design and development where you’ll need to know exactly why someone likes or dislikes your design or concept, rather than just how many people like or reject it.

Quantitative research is useful for finding out how many accept or reject something, how strongly they like specific criteria or propensity to select certain services or products, all using scoring systems and a structured questionnaire.

• Once you’re sure which type of market research you need (and of course it could be a project combining an element of each type), seek suppliers offering this methodology.

• Agencies calling themselves ‘Full Service’ will often offer both quantitative and qualitative methods, but some only offer one of these methods. If you still don’t quite understand what each agency offers, telephone a couple of selected agencies and chat things through. They’ll happily help you get to grips with the jargon!

• It can be useful, although not mandatory, to identify companies with expertise in your own sector, for example, telecommunications, aviation or food and drink. However, if you like a particular agency’s advertisement and they don’t seem to specialize in your area, there’s still a good chance they can help as the Research Buyers’ Guide only allows suppliers to tick a limited number of preferred areas, so yours may have been missed out.

• If you still like a company even after they admit they’ve never worked on press-fit widgets before, still allow them to quote because researchers are trained to investigate new areas very quickly and can apply transferable skills across different sectors. You’ll soon see if this is the case when they ‘pitch’ for your project; in their response, they’ll try to demonstrate and feedback to you their understanding of your brief.

• Don’t be swayed by suppliers’ distances from your business; most UK-based suppliers have national coverage.

• Choose five or fewer agencies to receive the brief. Don’t go above this number unless specifying qualitative and quantitative projects to entirely different sets of suppliers. Your brief will generate questions so you need to give time to answering agencies’ queries promptly and incisively. It will also deter suppliers from providing a quotation if they feel they have little chance of winning the job.

• Don’t tell agencies the names of other companies pitching for the work, and never make comments about other agencies’ proposals, costs or approaches.

• There’s no reason to prefer large companies or well-known brands over smaller agencies or sole traders, especially for qualitative projects. Industry training is rigorous so as long as you insist on a project manager with MRS Full Membership, quality standards should remain high.

• Larger agencies sometimes outsource key elements to freelance personnel, although it’s more likely on qualitative projects. Qualitative outsourcing is not necessarily a negative; suppliers will maintain high standards but you won’t necessarily know who’s going to work on your project until after commissioning.

• Small agencies and sole traders may give your project more attention and take a more personalized approach. They can also be more flexible in meeting any changing requirements. Small suppliers are cost-advantageous and hungry for ongoing client relationships.

• Small suppliers, however, won’t necessarily have the ability to achieve fast turnaround on larger scale quantitative studies, as they’ll need to outsource elements of data processing.

Writing a Research Brief
Include in your written brief the key elements outlined below, but don’t worry if unsure of any areas; there is no ‘set format’. Even if it’s your first time, nobody will judge you adversely; agencies will simply contact you for more detail on any area they feel is insufficiently detailed.

It is fine to say at the start of the brief that you are new to commissioning research, but trying to follow some basic headings will help agencies respond to you more quickly and effectively.
These are the most common research brief headings:

1 Background to Research
Who you are, company details, a brief history of what the company does, and why you need market research; what are (in brief) the main problems, issues or queries driving your need for market research, and in what way will you want to use the research outcomes?

2 Aims and Objectives
Cite the overall aim of the project, for example, ‘to better understand the buying and decision-making processes behind consumers’ purchasing of X-Co widgets.’ Then cite as many ‘bullet-point’ supporting objectives as possible.

For example:

The research needs to:
Identify the main drivers behind the purchase of X-Co widgets.
Ascertain all decision-making factors when buying widgets.
Determine why X-Co widgets are sometimes preferred to competitors’ widgets.
Understand all perceived differences between X-Co widgets and competitors’ widgets.
Understand how X-Co’s customer service meets consumers’ needs, and where it fails.

Determine whether X-Co communicates with widget customers in the appropriate tone, giving the right information and using appealing communication methods.

Explore areas in which widget product quality, company service or marketing and usage communications can be improved.

3 Research Methodology
Are you seeking qualitative research, quantitative, or a mix of both? If unsure, state that you’ll take agency recommendations. Many buyers leave this open, just stating their background and issues and letting the agency choose a preferred approach.

4 Budget
If you know the maximum available spend, state it. However, as a new supplier, you probably feel uncertain about budgets. Avoid alienating agencies by stating inappropriate figures. In this case, write ‘to be agreed’.

Expect a minimum spend of £5,000 for basic research using either method. Many surveys exceed £10,000 but if you do have a smaller budget it’s still worth enquiring. Many agencies can do something for you if you remain flexible.

5 Timings
Allow agencies to indicate their own required timings. However, if you have important diary dates such as a Board meeting or pivotal product development deadline, state this in the brief.

Expect small qualitative research programs among consumers to require three to five weeks for completion and reporting. Quantitative research may take a little longer because of data processing stages. Qualitative and quantitative methods can sometimes run concurrently.

6 Special Requirements
State any stipulations, such as:
• All agencies should place a Director or Associate Director in charge of the project. Please name the person who would act as the key contact throughout, and their relevant expertise and interest in this project.
• Please respond in the first instance by email, to (your own key contact).
• Agencies submitting proposals should do so by (deadline, ideally at least 5 working days away, and further ahead if you’re inviting face-to-face briefing meetings.)

Issuing a Brief
Telephone each agency and ask for the name of the person to whom you should send your brief. Check that the named contact is a Director or Associate Director, as you need the expertise of a senior researcher.

The advantage of dialogues by email is that you’ll issue exactly the same document to every supplier, thus placing them on an equal footing when they read and respond. You can then begin to compare and contrast responses and see which agency best grasps the essence of your brief.

Before you accept a full proposal and quotation from an agency, you could consider inviting them to visit you for face-to-face talks if you’re also based in the UK, as this helps establish whether you’ll have an easy rapport with key project personnel, and gives suppliers chance to ask questions and understand your business.

If they choose not to visit, are they really passionate about your project? If you’re based outside the UK you’ll need to brief agencies fully by email and telephone.

Researchers are used to visiting buyers who have never commissioned research previously, and will welcome the opportunity to start a relationship with you; they’ll ask all the appropriate questions required to construct a thorough proposal, so don’t worry about your lack of expertise; this is why you are calling them in.

Ahead of the meeting, think in greater depth about the questions you need the research to answer; write them down. Keep subject areas tightly defined – it’s not advantageous to cover too many topics in one project and only dilutes your results.

Choosing Your Supplier
Your ultimate decision should be based on suppliers’ responses to the brief, their enthusiasm for the project, ability to grasp the topics covered and to show understanding of your requirements, as well as the rapport you’ve developed with the agency.

Ensure that the people you trust will take responsibility for your project; many larger agencies pass projects to less senior personnel unless clients stipulate otherwise. If agreeing to unfamiliar agency representatives managing your project, ensure the job is being overseen by an Associate Director or Director. Obtain their name and contact details in writing.

Don’t choose suppliers based on cost alone. Higher costs often reflect greater thought afforded to your specification. If an agency notices you’ve specified a hard-to-reach market, for example, they’ll raise their price to cover the added costs of finding respondents. This shows they have really grasped the brief. Another agency may struggle to complete your work adequately if they missed this important factor at the costing stage.

If there are major costing differentials, do highlight this to all the suppliers and ask your preferred supplier if they can do anything to lower their quote. Again, though, be realistic; you want a thorough job, not a cheap one.

Above all, don’t be hesitant to use market research whenever you have unanswered questions, as it can really give a business significant leverage among the competition and there will usually be a definite and, ultimately, measurable benefit, even if buying research sounds expensive initially.

Keep Ahead in Business: Commissioning UK Market Research
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Cheryl Anne
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