Beating the blues
Some qualitative research agencies don’t just survive but manage to thrive in a downturn. Davina O’Donoghue offers some golden rules
No matter what the pundits say, research is not recession proof. Ask anyone involved in qual on any level what the last 18 months to two years has felt like and they will let you know in no uncertain terms: tough. So how does a qualitative research practice not just survive but thrive in the hard times? There is no panacea but there are a number of truths, which require more attention when times are lean.
Bird in the hand
Nurturing existing clients might sound like the most obvious piece of advice in the world but in the fat times it is easy to forget. The reasons for making this a priority are very simple. Economic uncertainty breeds one universal mentality: caution.
Like a child, who after getting a fright clings to someone he knows well, so cared-for clients will cling tightly to the suppliers that they know and love. If anything, by remaining fully engaged with clients through the tough times an agency can actually relax more than in the easier times.
Clients are far less likely to have a roving eye for different or new agencies when they have less budget and a need not only to make it go further but also to make sure that none of it goes to waste.
There is another lesson in this truth. New business generation should always be a priority in any agency, but how much of your precious resources do you wish to pour into an activity when the cautious client mentality stacks the odds so firmly against you?
It is far healthier to recognise that, given all the effort and slog it entails, it is a long-term game in this climate. Keeping your agencys name top of mind and at the forefront of debate in the industry will pay off, but most likely not before the economy improves.
That said, if you ask yourself the question what would happen if client X stopped giving us work and the answer is go bust, it is time to get on the campaign trail!
There is a softer target in the shape of the clients you already possess. In many larger client organisations there are probably more research buyers and influencers than you know of. If your personal contacts rate you and wish to see you succeed they can and will, if asked, recommend you internally.
There is nothing like word of mouth. The more people who know your name, the more of an institution your agency will become and thus your relationship with your client will be more secure as a result. After all, if one client recommends you to their colleague and you perform well for them, your client can only look good.
It is fair to say that the days of full-on corporate schmoozing are gone. It is not the money that is missing but the time. Client side researchers are often doing the job of two or three people as their departments continue to downsize. So what can you do over and above providing excellent research?
Find simple ways to add value. For instance, if you happen to be working across different products or categories for one organisation, look at ways of pooling relevant information from past projects and presenting it.
There is so much duplication within large organisations that taking such an initiative will not only demonstrate your commitment to your clients business, it will also mean that you become expert in a particular area or on a particular target or subject.
Conduct cost effective pieces of research which are not budget or brand specific but more big perspective in their objectives. These are the things that not only moderators wish they had permission to research but clients, too.
Ask your client to provide some sponsorship for the work, thus reducing the cost to yourself. On completion, you will have added value to your clients business and emerged with some findings with which to approach prospective or warm contacts.
Stay in touch before, during, and after a project. No matter where you are in the world, or how busy you are, a short email or phone call to a client to keep them updated after each night of fieldwork or to enquire as to the outcome of a project, lets them know you have not stopped thinking about them and their objectives.
When a project is complete send them a customer satisfaction email. This need involve no more than two carefully worded questions to understand the highs and lows of the project from the client perspective
Finally the corporate schmooze may have gone out the window but if you encounter a client with whom you do genuinely hit it off, dont be afraid to take them out for dinner. A refusal is a rare thing.
Credit control is king
As less cash flows through everybodys books in a downturn, everybody is inclined to allow payment to drag on well beyond the agreed date. This may not be the end of the world when the projects are rolling in, but it can spell disaster when they arent.
There is one simple question you need to ask. Does everyone who is client facing in my company understand how cash flow impacts on our bottom line? If the answer is yes, then everyone will feel responsible for intelligent invoicing.
If you ensure that your employees know to investigate what the likely client payment terms are, there will be an opportunity to negotiate with clients in order to find terms that are acceptable to both parties. Most procurement departments will allow for alternative terms to be employed so long as they have been agreed and set up on the system in advance.
When times are easy, lots of things sound like reasonable expenses, but in a recession you might think differently. Start off by going though all standing orders and direct debits. What are you spending your money on and is it all necessary?
Minding your assets
Making redundancies is possibly one of the worst scenarios a business can find itself in. Qual is such a labour intensive field; we can all too easily find ourselves with more people than we have live projects.
If, however, the company can sustain these individuals until the storm has passed, they can be put to very good use for the long term good of the business. The more junior members of an agency can do all of the extra-curricular research approach mentioned above, as well as finding ways to add value to client organisations.
It is not a good use of a business-getters time to be mired down in the intricacies of a non-profit making project. They need to be involved but not subsumed. Charging these tasks to more junior team members means that employees can also stretch themselves and cut their teeth in a more tolerant environment than on a live piece of work.
The autonomy and freedom that these pieces of work provide can grow a junior member of staff far faster than staying under the wing of a more experienced researcher on an ongoing basis.
An obvious point
Have a point of difference. Back in the halcyon days it was easy to set up a qual agency on the back of a couple of loyal clients commitment to come with the founders when they made the leap. Many did and they did well but when the economy slowed and perhaps one or two key client budgets were slashed they found themselves hard pressed to come up with a reason for other clients to use them over and above we are very good.
We all think that we are very good, otherwise we wouldnt do this job, but in identifying what it is that makes you different you have to ensure that in the eyes of a client it also makes you better.
Board Director, RDSi
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, February 2004
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2004