By Ron Sellers
You know what I don’t miss? The multiple blog posts from Angry MR Client and Angry MR Respondent that hit the industry a couple of years ago. There were also a few posts by those claiming to be an Angry MR Vendor, along with plenty of angry vendor rebuttals to the other angry folks. Remember those?
Why was everyone so angry? Are they still in a rage, or have they simmered down to being mildly annoyed or maybe just dyspeptic?
While these specific Angry bloggers seem to have stepped away from the keyboard, there are still a lot of complaints vendors have about clients, and clients about vendors. Too often, these complaints are directed at an entire class of researchers or at the industry as a whole.
Having been both a vendor and a client, I understand many of the complaints from each perspective – shoddy service from vendors, repeated abuse of respondents, unreasonable client demands, payment problems, unhelpful reporting, stale methodological approaches, awful sales attempts, micromanagement, lack of project management, etc. In fact, I’ve complained about many of these myself, either here in the Greenbook blog or in informal gripe sessions with other researchers.
I get the desire for our industry to be better, but I just don’t get the anger directed so often at an entire sector of our industry, or at the tendency to lump all clients or all vendors together. Too many times, sentences start with “What vendors fail to do is…” or “What clients don’t understand is…”
Many times, I’ve been a survey respondent, and I’ve experienced the horrors of what’s out there masquerading as research. But I don’t get angry – I just refuse to waste my time with poorly designed questionnaires. I see no reason to get angry; instead, I just walk away and let the researchers get angry at the low completion rate and high abandonment rate on their shoddy surveys (if they even know or care what those problems are).
I’ve been badly treated by clients. I’ve had people fail to pay me on time (or at all to the tune of $40,000 in one case). I’ve lost a $30,000 project solely because someone underbid me by $100. I’ve had a client ask me to falsify data. I’ve had a client try and frame me for a major mistake she made (fortunately I had a copy of her mistake in her own handwriting). I’ve had a client scream at me because he never provided me with approval on the questionnaire and I did not field it without his approval (leading to one of my all-time favorite lines from a client: “I don’t care if it’s right! I need data! Just get me data!”).
And certainly I got angry. But I only got angry at those people. Not even at their companies, because there were other very fine people in those firms. Just at those people. I’m not angry at clients in general. I’m not expecting the worst from every client with whom I work, and I’m happy to say I truly enjoy working with most of my clients.
I also learned early in my career that anger just isn’t worth it. My boss at that time (who was the owner of the company) heard about the client screaming at me. Her response taught me a lot about how to conduct my business: “Do your best to finish up this project and once it’s done, don’t even accept any phone calls from him in the future. I will not have my employees treated that way. We don’t need his business that badly. I refuse to work with him again.”
This was why, a decade later, I fired my biggest client. Well, I didn’t specifically tell them not to contact me any more – I just stopped asking for their business and instead concentrated on finding replacement business. They sort of quietly went away to inflict torture on other vendors.
I got tired of the fact that they rotated people in and out of the research department so often that I never worked with the same person twice and had no chance to build relationships. I got tired of their ridiculous demands (like me begging them for two weeks to allow me to over-recruit a project, then having them demand the night before the focus groups that we add more recruits; or having their people wake me up early on a Sunday morning to discuss something insignificant). I got tired of their nickel-and-dime approach to work, like the fact that they refused to reimburse vendors for lunch in their travel expenses (because if I were in my Phoenix office rather than on the road, I’d be going out to lunch anyway, so I could darn well pay for my own lunch in Atlanta or Detroit just like I would in Phoenix). Toward the end, one of their analysts confided to me that one-third of the RFPs they sent out would come back marked “declined to bid.” Seems that many others had the same perspectives I did.
But other than swapping funny war stories with other researchers, I’m not angry at that client, nor at clients in general. Rather than getting angry, I got better. I got better at finding people I could respect and who would respect me, and I concentrated on doing my best to serve them.
I’ve also used scores of vendors over the years, and found some of them to be so incompetent as to boggle my mind. Like the project that was supposed to go into the field on a Thursday night, but I couldn’t get through to the company at all Friday morning for an update. Right before noon, someone finally picked up the phone, and told me that his company had just bought the vendor I had contracted with. They had fired the entire staff (giving them one hour to clean out their desks), and he had taken over. When I asked about my project, his response was, “We don’t have time to do it, and even if we did, they underbid the project, so we would charge you three times the amount for it.” And in those days of printed phone lists, he had no idea where my one copy of the list was, nor when he could be bothered to return it.
Or how about the company that was recruiting clergy for my focus groups. When I asked them to send me a list of local churches, moments later I was the surprised recipient of a list of every Church’s Fried Chicken restaurant in their market.
Or maybe the three different field vendors I’ve had who have utterly falsified data they tried to give me. One simply made up quantitative surveys and tried to pass them off to me as completed interviews; when I started questioning some of the oddities a junior staff member admitted their attempted swindle. Two were qualitative recruiters who didn’t want to face up to the fact that they weren’t getting recruits, so they plied me with fictitious reports until the day before the groups, when they finally admitted they had almost no recruits. Yes, I was very angry – even to the point of getting one person fired for the ruse. But I don’t lay the blame at the feet of all vendors for these misdeeds.
If you simply cannot find good vendors or good clients, maybe you need to reconsider your approach. For difficult clients, consider charging them more (at least to be compensated for your misery), or standing up to them (in a nice way) and explaining why you are not going to work all weekend because they forgot to give you something until Friday at 4:59 p.m. If it’s bad enough, maybe you need to find other clients.
If you simply do not have good vendors who can meet your needs, maybe you need to look harder for new vendors, or do a better job of vetting them and investigating their work before you trust them with a project. If your vendors are consistently underwhelming you with their work, why do you continue to use those vendors?
Or maybe you need to reconsider your expectations. I would love to find a car that has 500 horsepower and gets 100 miles to the gallon, but I’m not going to curse all car companies because no one is giving me what I want.
Constant complaints about how vendors are incompetent remind me of the single guy who gripes that there are no good women available – but his definition of “good women” is that they are rich, gorgeous, compliant, and willing to devote themselves entirely to his needs. (Ironically, this also is usually the guy who hasn’t come within ten yards of a stick of deodorant in days and who thinks a classy date is buying the name-brand pork rinds instead of the store brand for when the two of them watch Married with Children reruns.)
Or maybe you need to reconsider how you work with vendors. Vendors can’t write a strategically meaningful report if you refuse to tell them what your strategic needs are, or you make them do their work in a vacuum. Vendors are unlikely to move heaven and earth to meet your deadlines if they know you sat on the RFP for two weeks, or that you’re likely to pay them six weeks late. Vendors are not going to wrack their brains to come up with innovative ways of getting you what you need if you’ve previously used their ideas but given the actual work to someone less expensive, or if you’re constantly micromanaging their work (or taking credit for it). Vendors probably won’t absorb unexpected costs or gladly do extra work if you make a habit of demanding they reduce their bid by 20%, or requiring line-item bids so you can question every expense individually.
I have been extremely angry at individual clients and vendors at different times, and I have no doubt I have made some clients and vendors angry at me over the course of my career. I’ve messed up royally a few times (although I also try to acknowledge and correct the mistakes and make things right with the affected party). But I don’t see any of this as a reason to feel there are no good clients or no good vendors, or that our industry is a morass of feeblemindedness, group think, and incompetence. There are plenty of bad clients and vendors in our world, but also plenty of very, very good ones. That’s why I have a variety of clients I’ve worked with for multiple decades: we both make a habit of working towards a great partnership where everybody benefits.
I received a valuable piece of wisdom years ago from my pastor, who said this: “If one person calls you a horse’s behind, don’t worry about it. If two people call you a horse’s behind, take a good hard look in the mirror. If three people call you a horse’s behind…buy a saddle.”
If your vendors inevitably fail your expectations or your clients generally make your life miserable, don’t get angry, get better. Get better at finding good people to partner with, and get better at giving them what they need to succeed.
Or take a good hard look at the price of saddles these days.