The Association for Qualitative Research
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Research Buying Checklist

Buying research is, in a way, like buying any commodity. The purchaser needs to think through, clearly and rationally, what they're looking for and to be open to whatever the market has to offer. Sounds straightforward? Maybe, but many a researcher has spent long meeting hours trying to ascertain exactly what their client is after.

Looking to Buy? This article is intended as an aide memoire for those looking to buy, with a check list of issues to think through that might help:

1: Be clear about what the research needs to achieve

Be clear about what the research needs to achieve, what it will be used for, and by whom. Research projects often have to deliver to a range of objectives, both project specific and organisational, which need to be carefully thought through. The resulting findings may need to be presented to the Board, or might remain at an operational level, but sometimes the research project needs to do both. And all this needs to be borne in mind when you're making a purchasing decision. The views and aspirations of whoever will take the research forward at the end of the process need to be carefully considered when designing the brief and choosing a supplier.

2: Think through the sort of expertise you require

Is it a straight forward data analysis job or do you need research consultancy to advise on a difficult business issue? What research techniques do you think will need to be applied — or are there a number of different ways to execute your project? Indeed, have you tried something successfully, or less so, previously — and if so, what can be learnt from that exercise? Different suppliers have different strengths, so thinking through clearly what expertise you think is needed will help deliver to your brief.

3: Be realistic when considering timescales and budgets

Having thought through the first two issues you can then think about budget and timing. How much money do you have to deliver what is needed? Is it enough? Do you have to compromise the brief given your resources or can you make it work? Give suppliers a realistic chance to respond in terms of time and ideally give a budget to aim for. Also, don't compromise the time that you need to make a decision about which supplier to go with. I've generally found that a proposal that looks too good to be true usually is, so I'd suggest looking for suppliers who deliver good expertise and value for money. In my experience this tends to rule out the cheapest and most expensive suppliers.

4: Don't just go for the usual suspects

There is a huge variety of different research agencies and freelancers in the UK, despite all the big agency buy-outs, so don't just ask the usual suspects to pitch for work. New suppliers will often work harder than those who work with you regularly in an effort to demonstrate their value. It does, however, tend to be more manageable if you keep the number of bidders to four or five. That way you get a sense of the breadth of options but don't have to wade through lots of documentation. Also, it's fairer to the firms bidding. They should feel like there is a good chance of recovering the investment they have made in submitting a good bid.

5: Be open to innovation

Unfortunately I'd say that agencies tend towards the conservative in responding to client briefs, as they are less likely to challenge the methodologies that are suggested by clients. But that doesn't stop us looking for new ways of doing things and working with suppliers who challenge what we have done in the past. Very often this is the kind of consultancy that can be most helpful.

6: Use your research instincts

Sometimes it can be difficult to choose between research suppliers. At times like these I find it easiest to way up the pros and cons of each supplier against one another. Ultimately, however, when it's a close-run thing the decision tends to come down to instinct, so listen to what your instincts are telling you. Also, don't give yourself a hard time if you make the wrong decision, those are very often the times when we all learn the most.

7: Help the research supplier to help you

Research projects should be a collaboration between supplier and provider; putting pressure on suppliers to deliver something they never promised doesn't help the project deliver. Tell the suppliers as much as you can to help them do their job, work with them and they'll go the extra mile that you may not expect. After all, as project commissioner it's in your interest to deliver the project well, finding and working with the right agency will make your job easier and best demonstrate your skills in leading the research process.

8: Give feedback to those you work with and those you don't

Keeping communication as open as possible — with both those whom you work with and those whom you chose not to — means everyone knows how the land lies. Explain to companies that have been unsuccessful why this is the case. This will help them respond differently on another occasion should you ask them to pitch again. And it will help those who you do work with to understand the issues you are facing in delivering the project, allowing them in turn to respond.

Happy commissioning.


Ruth Flood
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2009