Finding the right fit: Why sometimes a survey project just won’t work — and that’s okay

This post was originally posted to the Insights Association website.

Would you buy a pair of shoes that don’t fit?

Of course you wouldn’t! The same applies to market research projects, particularly in the medical market research space. Sure, there are tough projects and we don’t shy away when we can build a strategy or customize a plan that will deliver real value to the client and their customer.

But then there are those ones that just aren’t a good fit. Knowing the difference is key.

A recent example

I had a last-minute request from a longtime client. While all the other projects we’ve done with him have gone well, this one didn’t sound promising. Our feasibility team reviewed the proposal in detail and found that it was impossible for any research company to deliver on. There simply weren’t enough of the highly specialized professionals even in existence, much less those who might participate in a study to make the sample valid. We know because we’ve tried in the past without success – and have never found a partner who’s been able to recruit these specialists either. Transparency throughout the entire bidding process is crucial to not only project success, but also for successful client/vendor relationships.

I had to make a decision. It was at the end of the month when I’m naturally eager to hit my sales numbers. I could submit a proposal that, even with a ton of caveats, might falsely raise the client’s expectations of success, when it simply wasn’t possible. Or, I could have a difficult conversation with the client, letting them know that their project wasn’t feasible and why.

I chose to turn down the request. Here’s why.

A short-term sale isn’t worth it

When it’s not the right fit for a client, that sale is just going to be bad for everyone. Making and keeping strong relationships is built on trust and keeping our promises for their benefit. Plus, overreaching projects that aren’t successful will make us and our customers look bad. That’s why we have a whole team look at each study’s feasibility. We outline our strategic plan for the project before the client signs on the dotted line. And, our review lets us offer suggestions for how to alter the project’s criteria, if necessary, to meet the client’s goals and increase feasibility.

I learned these lessons early in my career, when I was selling advertising for a radio station. I once scared away a potential client with a large proposal for something that I wanted them to buy that was completely different from what they needed. That pitch annoyed their marketing director — who never did become a client of mine, but did some enormous campaigns for competing stations in later years — and I didn’t make the sale.

Market Research is very different from radio sales, but in the end, all successful sales boil down to fit. In radio, you have to be talking to the right people enough times with a message that will resonate with them. In recruitment for market research, you have to be working with a company that has real access to enough of the sample, a very clear strategy of how to reach them with a message, and an incentive that will motivate the panelists to participate.

This taught me a lesson that I think about every day in my current role, and I’m lucky to work for a company that shares this philosophy and promotes transparency through the entire quoting process, understanding how critical it is to both a project’s success and also the client/vendor relationship. WIth that transparency sometimes comes the need for difficult conversations. While we encourage clients to come to us with challenging projects that others don’t want to take on, it’s also important to understand the difference between challenging and simply not feasible.

If I don’t have something that’s right for the client, then it’s better for everyone if I pass on the project. But, providing an explanation as to why the project isn’t feasible is key. This gives the client an opportunity to go back and rework the request, if possible. Some have thanked me for being honest, which gave them insights for why other companies probably turned down the proposal.

Note that I don’t take turning down a sales opportunity lightly. I’m naturally a competitive salesperson. I was a Division 1 athlete in college and I want to win every single time. I want to make sales and exceed my goal every month.

But, when it comes down to it, I’d much rather walk away from a project to protect a relationship with a client.

That’s always the best fit.