By Ron Sellers
Corporate researchers: What attracts you to a potential new research vendor? How do you learn about new vendors? How do you feel about the attempts they make to get your attention and promote their services? Read on to see what one of your colleagues has to say…
Research vendors: When should you give up on landing a potential client? What are you doing that turns people off or attracts them to your work? Read on to see what a member of your target market is saying…
My first interview is with Jill Capps, Assistant Manager of Marketing Research at Gorton’s, the seafood company from Gloucester, MA. Jill has been with Gorton’s for over five years, came from the vendor side, works in a two-person research department that handles 30 to 40 projects a year, and hires vendors for quantitative and qualitative work.
Ron: When do you consider working with a new vendor?
Jill: We have sort of a set group of people we’ve worked with over the years, and generally speaking when we bring someone new in, it’s either because they have something very specific to offer, or they’ve gotten a good recommendation from one of our contacts in the industry. Also, if I meet someone at a conference or talk to someone over the phone, or if they send me an e-mail, and I think the company is worth at least understanding what they do, we might send out an RFP to more than just our standard group of people and then see what comes back.
Ron: What are some of the things that have made it “worth it” in the past to learn more about a vendor? What helps one vendor break through the clutter and make you say, “I want to learn more about them”?
Jill: Because we are so collaborative in how we work with vendors, even in that initial phone call we’re looking for people who want to start out by understanding where we are right now and what kinds of questions we’re trying to answer. So I really look for someone who starts out collaborative and wanting to understand more about what it is we’re trying to do.
Ron: What are some of the best or most common ways you have learned about new vendors?
Jill: I’ve learned about most of them through cold calls or e-mails. If I get an e-mail from someone and it looks like it’s the kind of information we’re looking to understand on questions that come from marketing, I’ll click through and take a look at the website. If they have a specific offer or a new methodology or a new way of looking at something, then I might go ahead and schedule that call.
But it’s not usually right after I get that e-mail. Often I’ll read through the e-mail or look at the website, and it’s filed away in my head. Then I hear a question from marketing, and I’ll think, “I was just reading about a company that does that.” So that’s really where those e-mails come in handy, because it keeps it in front of me and gives me something to think about.
That’s why I like reading some of the different blogs that some of them are doing, or some of the different e-mail newsletters or things like that, especially if they include a little nugget or two of actionable information aside from just advertising. Then I’ll reach out and say, “I’d really like to talk to someone about this.”
Ron: In general, do you think research vendors tend to have strong, differentiated brands and brand positions, or is it sort of a commodity out there; it’s undifferentiated?
Jill: I think it’s both. I think there are some that are very differentiated. I think there are some who like to think they’re differentiated, but then talking to them it turns out they do everything. You’re not really differentiating yourself if you do everything.
I like it when they say, “You know what? This isn’t the kind of question that we usually answer. This isn’t how our methodology is best used. This isn’t something that we would want to take on.” I actually really appreciate that kind of honesty as well, rather than saying, “Okay, well, we’ll take that challenge,” then either trying to force fit my question into their methodology or vice versa. I want someone to think it through and say, “You know what – this isn’t the way to do it.”
Ron: What about in terms of brand differentiation beyond special methodologies? What about differentiation among vendors that in a sense offer some of the same stuff? For example, is there really much brand differentiation among different panel companies, quantitative companies, or focus group facilities?
Jill: Not in my head. I think some of the larger ones I might be a little less interested in talking to, simply because we’re smaller, so I feel like we get shuffled around sometimes in the larger companies. So I might differentiate companies based on whether I think they’re going to treat us personally and whether I think they’re going to give us that individual attention. But in terms of looking at them and saying, “Oh, this is really different from that,” I don’t think there’s much difference.
Ron: In a typical week, how many different companies try to approach you or market to you in some manner?
Jill: I would say I probably get two or three a day on e-mail – the direct solicitation, like “Hi, here’s what we do, here’s our new service.” Then there are all the weekly or monthly newsletters, so probably half a dozen to a dozen a week.
Ron: Sounds like the most common approach is e-mail.
Jill: I will get occasional phone calls. I prefer e-mail; I prefer having it where I can file it away and explore it when I have time and then I can set up the phone call if I want to know more.
Ron: Can you think of a marketing or promotional attempt by a research vendor that really got your attention, either in a good way or a bad way?
Jill: We were exploring a new project, and I reached out to the key vendors in that particular space to find out about their approaches. One vendor asked for a call to talk further about the project, so I agreed. When they called — this was the first time I’d ever spoken with them — and they wanted to start talking about the nitty-gritty details right away. That was a little bit too presumptuous, and I would rather have had them talk to me about understanding the objectives better and understanding some of what they offer better before, “Let’s talk about what cities you want to go to in this research.” That’s way beyond where you should be talking to me right now as a new vendor. So being that forward and making those assumptions is not a good way to get me to call you back.
Ron: In general, what’s the biggest mistake research vendors make when they’re trying to market their services or abilities to you?
Jill: Often a new vendor wants to start by giving me a capabilities overview where they’re going to read me their slides and tell me how wonderful they are, and they’re just going to assume they know what I’m looking for or they assume they know the kind of research I need to do. The ones I might want to talk to or have a second or a third conversation with, they’re the ones who really want to help understand what’s our biggest problem right now and what’s our biggest need, rather than coming in and saying, “Here we have this neat thing and it will answer all your questions from now until forever,” and it doesn’t even apply or I don’t see how it can apply.
Ron: What else do vendors do in their marketing or promotional attempts that tends to turn you off?
Jill: When they read slides to me. If they’re reading their sales slides to me, then they’re going to read their report slides to my marketing team and that’s not going to go over well. So it needs to be a conversation.
Obviously I’d rather not have them tell me bad things about the vendors I currently work with, because that’s just not a good way to get my attention.
And then if at the end of that introductory call, or even in their e-mail when they’re trying to set up their call, they go into that, “Let’s agree on next steps” mode. I know they’re trying to close their sale. I understand that’s what they’re supposed to do. But I’m not there yet, and if they go there right away, it’s a little pushy, it’s a little off-putting.
Also, if they offer “Call any time to bounce ideas off of us; let us help you think through things,” I’m probably going to do that. I may just need 15 minutes of time to bounce something off of somebody or want to understand what an alternate approach might be, and it may not turn into a project this time. So if you don’t really mean it, if you don’t really want to collaborate on things that aren’t necessarily going to add to your bottom line immediately, then don’t offer it.
Finally, it does not do a research company any good to blanket our corporate e-mail system with e-mails! Do a little research to find out whom to send the message to. I have just been forwarded two e-mails that are exactly the same – one went to someone in our R&D department, and one in marketing – and they are identical, although they appear to be very chatty, personal “just reaching out” type e-mails. In our organization, people will forward those to me, and then I get to chuckle at the duplicated “personal touch.” That also tends to give me a feeling of the kind of attention my project might get.
Ron: What’s the most overdone message that researchers out there are promoting? The message where you say, “If one more vendor says this to me or makes this claim…”
Jill: Trying to be one-size-fits-all or saying “We can answer any question.” We don’t work with just one vendor. We never will work with just one vendor. We like to have a selection of skills to draw from, so tell me what yours is.
The other thing I think is sometimes overdone is the slide that shows how many brands you’ve done projects for. It actually makes me more nervous. Of course, I like to understand what other companies you’ve worked with in my industry. Not necessarily seafood companies but food or CPG. But just showing me that slide with 50 different brand names on there, I think one of two things. I either think you’re way too busy to even pay attention to me, or I think you must have done one project for each of those companies over the last ten years and you’re still using their logo, so what does that tell me? It doesn’t tell me anything. They’re either overselling themselves or padding their résumés a little bit.
Ron: You’ve raised two very interesting questions. One is the whole competitive experience issue. When you see any of your competitors on a vendor’s client list, do you tend to think “Good, they know my industry, that’s a mark in their favor,” or do you tend to think, “Well that’s a competitive threat, that’s a mark against them”?
Jill: It really depends on the type of project I’m trying to do. If it’s something where confidentiality is a huge issue then I might think twice about having that company work on it. But if it’s a brand equity study or an attitude segmentation study or some kind of broad advertising research or something like that, then knowing you understand not just CPG or the food industry but that you understand the specifics of our very small category, that might actually work in your favor because I don’t have to teach you all of that.
Ron: The other question it raises is the whole “how busy are they” issue. I did a lot of work for a bank that sometimes had trouble finding holes in my schedule when they wanted me to moderate. So they had this internal fight where one person was saying, “If Ron isn’t available whenever we need him, we need to go find another moderator,” and another person was saying, “The reason Ron is not just available at our beck and call is that he’s a great moderator and that’s why people want to work with him, so that’s why we want to work with him rather than someone who’s always available because he doesn’t have many clients.” What’s the balance there for you?
Jill: For focus group moderating especially, we’ll work around the schedule of the people we have had success with in the past rather than shopping around and trying to find just any old moderator, because I think with focus group moderating and any qualitative you really have to have someone who you can work with and who understands and becomes sort of an ancillary part of our research organization here. If you’re a quantitative house and you have too many projects for your analysts or statisticians or field house to handle, I’m not going to push my study back because a new vendor doesn’t have time to program it.
Ron: Finish this sentence: “If you want to reach me effectively with your message about the research services you offer, you really must…”
Jill: …understand that I have to sell this on my end, so you have to give me the specifics about what my internal client is going to get. I need to understand the how’s and why’s of the research, but in order to sell it to my internal clients, to get them to agree to go to a new methodology or a new vendor, I have to be able to say, “This is why. You’re going to get all of these specific things. You’re going to be able to answer these questions better.”
Ron: What is your view about the advertising you see from research vendors today – the quality, effectiveness, ability to capture your attention or deliver a key message?
Jill: I don’t actually look at the ads, firstly, in the magazines or online. I’m looking for an article or a blog they’ve written or the white papers they offer or the case studies that might be in that magazine. I might take that from the author’s byline and go and look at their own website, but I’ve very rarely actually seen an ad in a paper or online that was, “Oh, I want to go and explore that further.”
Ron: So what do you tend to look for or pay attention to on a vendor’s website?
Jill: Again, some of those very specific case studies. How did you approach a particular project? I know they’re going to be blind and you’re not going to be able to give me the results and I wouldn’t be asking for that. If you’re screening concepts, I don’t necessarily need to know that your screening found six more winning concepts than the next nearest screening methodology. What I want to know is, what happened? Did the company actually end up going with any of those ideas? Were they ultimately successful with any of those ideas? If you’re doing a name test for a new product, how many of those names you screened through ended up being ones that are actually on the shelf and what happened with that afterwards?
As a client, I know it’s very hard to get us to cough up some of that information and tell you six months or a year after the study that we did or didn’t follow through on it. But if you can get one or two of those kinds of examples, if you can interview some of your clients and get that kind of information, I can see what those results led to, and that would be really good to see. Case studies and understanding the specific types of results you can provide, but then also understanding how others may have used that information and what their outcomes from that information were.
Ron: Are there any little things that research vendors do that give you a bad impression? Things that might be easy for them to overlook or not even think about, but that tend to have a significant impact on your impressions of them?
Jill: I get invitations to webinars all the time, and I’ve logged in for those and told my marketing team, then it turns out to be a sales presentation rather than actual trends they’ve uncovered or anything. Those will definitely strike me the wrong way because I’ve told people based on your webinar ad that you’ve got these insights about Millennials, for instance, and then if I have people sitting in there and all you’re telling me about is how you can reach Millennials, that’s not helpful. So I think if your webinar is really more of a capabilities overview, then advertise it as such. Don’t advertise it as, you know, here are the five top trends for Millennials, then present one of them and say, “If you want the rest, we can do a study or sell you a report.”
Ron: Do you have some type of formal review process for new vendors?
Jill: Our review process here with only two of us in the department is that if we think this is the research vendor to go with and we can get marketing on board with it then we go with it.
I tend to have long-term conversations with different vendors. So we’ll have an e-mail exchange and set up the capabilities overview and then I’ll probably have a few other questions that I might want to bounce off of them, or maybe they have to call on us more than once and do two or three capabilities overviews over the course of a couple of years, but eventually it pays off in the sense that we would send out an RFP.
I should also say that generally when I send out an RFP, if I really want a proposal, I’ll say that. If I want a statement of approach or I want you to think about it and give me three different options, I’ll tell you that as well. When I’m looking for a proposal, I will say I think we should do this type of research, I’m looking to talk to these specific kinds of people, here are the incidence numbers based on what we’ve done in the past, here’s how I’m thinking we might approach this based on my talks with marketing and the types of questions I think we might need to cover, and then I send all of that information out. The ones that send me a proposal where they have just cut and pasted out of my RFP the exact questions we’re going to answer and the exact people we’re going to talk to, they might not make it past that first round because they didn’t show me any independence of thought whatsoever.
If I told someone that I really think this is focus groups, and they really didn’t think so and they send the proposal back saying, “I know you said focus groups but here’s what we think it should be,” that’s a person I might want to talk to, because they looked at it from a different angle.
Ron: What’s the balance between vendors that bug you, annoy you, talk to you every week to ask for a project, and those who don’t hear from you for a year so they assume you’re not interested? What’s the balance of staying on your radar without becoming an annoyance?
Jill: That’s a really good question. If I do a phone call with somebody, I take notes throughout the phone call, so I always have my notebook of potential vendors, and if they send me capabilities stuff afterward, I keep it on our network system so I have whatever slides they may have sent, or if they send me something in the mail we tend to keep it.
What really helps is if, even if we haven’t worked together, six months from now you send me a little note and say “Hey, we had a great conversation, just checking in, here’s something new that’s going on in our company if you want to talk about something,” or “We just did this very successful project and I thought of you.” So I think on a semi-annual or quarterly basis or every few months, if you think the relationship is actually there, if you did more than just a capabilities overview but actually had a conversation and felt like I was really interested, stay in touch. I respond well to pestering, so if you haven’t heard from me send me a little note or reach out to me. I try and set those kinds of relationship expectations in the initial phone call.
Ron: That’s a challenge I face as a vendor – at what point are you just beating your head against a wall? At what point are you just annoying the person rather than staying on their radar?
Jill: Every once in a while from a couple different companies I’ve had good conversations with, I’ll get a, “Hey, I just wanted to check in and see how everything’s going, and if you need anything you know where to find me” kind of e-mail. And some of those I’ll eventually get around to having a discussion and maybe sending an RFP and possibly that turns into a project.
If I get the sense that there’s something interesting or new or there’s a genuine love of the research or a genuine feeling that if I work with this person and we do two or three projects together, this company is going to end up becoming one of our go-to vendors because they’re trying to understand us right away, it may take a while to get in, but I’d keep trying. So that’s what I need them to do, is keep trying. Send me a little something every once in a while.
Ron: So I’m a research vendor and I’d like to work with you – what one piece of advice would you give me about how I most effectively reach out to you and make that happen?
Jill: I think it’s just to send me a little something every once in a while with an interesting article you’ve read or an interesting white paper that you’ve written. We had one vendor who sent us a picture of the product she saw in the grocery store and she was like, “I was so excited to see this!” and it wasn’t even a project we selected her for, but it was just exciting to her to see that this actually happened because she remembered talking to us about the project two years ago. So that personalized touch.
I would say you probably want to send me some information about success stories or how you helped a company avert a terrible mistake by running some quick focus groups as a disaster check. Send me a story like that that sticks in my mind or gives me something to remember you by.