The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Excellence

Working hand in hand

What are clients going to want from qualitative research companies in the next decade? More of the same, or a radical change of direction? We asked Jan Barkatullah, business research manager at Yellow Pages, to review the company's relationship with the qualitative research industry to date and to look to the future. Interestingly, certain theories raised, such as researchers providing greater input into strategy, only now seem to be transformed into reality.

She immediately homed in on two areas which she feels will grow in importance: quality and partnership. Quality impacts on all areas of business. "It means that every research agency we deal with is affected," she says. "There is a formal procedure for drawing up targets to ensure that the quality we get is sound. This is in line with EQA practice, and after each project we review the agency's performance, getting feedback from the internal customer."

But quality is not all about procedure. It is also about relationships, and it is here that Barkatullah's second point comes into play. "The important thing with qualitative agencies is that we take clear steps to build up partnerships with them," she says. "We aim for long term alliances so that their knowlege of our business is very good."

In a way, she feels, this is more vital with qualitative than with quantitative work. A questionnaire for the latter is fixed, therefore it matters less who manages the process. In qualitative work, however, if an agency understands its client's business, it can bring a broader perspective to bear and pick up on any small points.

Barkatullah is so keen on strengthening relationships with her agencies that she even promotes job switching, so that there is greater mutual understanding of both businesses. "Your suppliers, they will feel involved, there will be a sense of commitment, and if they have to choose between working on your project, when deadlines loom, or somebody else's ­ then you will benefit."

So much for client/agency relationships, but what of the nature of the industry itself? "In my experience," she says, "everything is getting more specialised. Ten years ago we would have used an agency which was a Jack of all trades. Now, not only are we being more careful about choosing qualitative research, but we might have a repertoire of just five agencies." Set alongside this is the fact that at Yellow Pages, as elsewhere, more and more departments are using qualitative research. Growth in this area for the coming decade, therefore, looks set to continue, even though agencies might have to develop individual areas of expertise to profit fully.


Louella Miles

This article was first published in InBrief magazine, November 1999
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 1999