The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Nuggets for a healthy future

Hindsight is a good thing, even if it allows me to see that I was a bit of a doughnut at the start of my career. Davina O¹Donoghue offers advice for new researchers on how to deal with clients

I went through a number of bizarre personality incarnations, all of which impacted on my work performance and ultimately my ability to get ahead. Many of these weird behaviours and misguided attempts to further my career, though, were borne out of what was fundamentally a lack of understanding about the true nature of my job.

Market research offers bright minds a career enabling a great deal of deep and creative thought. As such, many researchers in their early years treat it as just a bastardised form of academia. I did.

Then one fateful day -- even though I was bringing in business, servicing existing clients and producing what I considered to be world beating insights I didn't get promoted when I felt I should. My boss explained why. I had the wrong attitude to clients and it was they, rather than my bosses, who paid my salary. The lesson paid dividends.

So the sooner you start thinking that a career is built on the trust, approval and respect of clients as well as that of your boss, the easier you'll find work and the quicker you'll reap the rewards. A useful starting point is to work out 'what not to be'. I've focused on the four most common researcher 'types', but there are more:

The Scaredy Squeaky Researcher

This is probably the most common initial phase. In the presence of clients you become a shadow of your former self and don't speak until spoken to.

There is merit in staying quiet and listening when you are in a new role. If, however, you will yourself smaller physically and stay mute every time you see a client this can send out the wrong message. Indeed, a client will think: "Was there another person in that meeting? I don't recall anyone." Your boss, meanwhile, will wonder whether you've even understood what is required, let alone whether you'll help him on this project or not.

There is no sense in spouting utter nonsense either. So what to do? There is a really simple solution. Along with your boss, script a speaking role for yourself in the meeting. Set yourself the objective of always being the person on every job who knows everything about the project logistics. This is the very first building block in gaining the respect and trust of your boss and your client.

The Know-It-All

This character's arrogance tends to limit their ability to see this very flaw. To quote one senior industry figure: Know-It-Alls elicit a response from clients along the lines of "I am so glad you graduated in time to tell me what is wrong with my brand." A personal favourite was this line delivered by one graduate to the director of a cash-strapped and ailing brand: "Your brand would benefit from a large scale TV campaign." Genius!

From a boss's perspective, behaving this way makes you an arrogant trouble-maker who delays projects and undermines the credibility of your company. To remedy this ailment don't confuse 'an opinion' with 'the answer'. At this stage you have one and not the other. Use your opinions to stimulate debate and discussion.

The Tunnel Vision Researcher

This person operates under the illusion that research operates in a vacuum within client companies, when it's actually part of a much wider mix of disciplines and priorities. To demonstrate this lack of understanding of the wider business issues can make you and your firm look naïve, a perception that's hard to shift.

To avoid this career limiting problem, consider reading up on 'Marketing 101', interrogating your boss about the history with the client, the brand, how the client likes to work, other agencies involved in the project and where the client organisation places most value. Better still if the client is nice, ask them directly as it opens dialogue and tells them that you care.

The Strokey Beard

The most irritating of all: the navel gazers and pontificators. The client response to this character is "great mind but a week next Tuesday is too late." Or, "interesting observation but what the hell does it have to do with my brand?"

Often the worst excesses of this person are hidden from the client but the impact on your boss can be huge. "We've an hour left to finish this debrief. If your thinking isn't clear now will it be any clearer then?"

The remedy is simple; acknowledge the commercial reality of your job. You must deliver on time both internally and externally.

The Big Point

The understanding of my job that was so sorely lacking for the first couple of years is this: you are a business person whether you like it or not, and as such I suggest you try the following:

  • Read outside of prescribed texts.
  • Learn how to write well.
  • Manage your own career (no one will do it for you). For instance, don't change job too soon or you'll make a rod for your own back.
  • Do a personality inventory and find out what makes you tick. What makes your boss and clients tick?
  • Network! Acquaintances may become clients.
  • Day to day manage your priorities. If unsure, ask!
  • Understand the financial end of the business. This information increases the importance to you of keeping your client happy.
  • Ask for client feedback as well as employer feedback and where appropriate indulge in a little self promotion.

Clients will, in turn:

  • address questions directly to you and be interested in your answer
  • call and talk happily to you in your boss's stead
  • call and ask for you
  • insist that you work on their business

No boss can fail to appreciate the value of an employee with whom they can trust clients.


Davina O'Donoghue
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2006