We’ve been involved in hundreds of client relationships, some more satisfying than others. Client-supplier relationships have all of the makings of a stressful partnership: a lot of money is at stake, projects can make or break careers, and there can be strong personalities on both sides. But, when the client-supplier relationship really works, it can be long-lasting and productive.
As a supplier, we are always looking for clients and projects that hit on three dimensions at the same time: 1) projects that study topics or business situations that are interesting to work on, 2) projects that are led by individuals that are a pleasure to work with, and 3) projects that work out financially. The projects we complete that are of the highest quality are the ones that hit all three of these dimensions at the same time.
So, if you are a client, how can you manage your project to the greatest success with your suppliers? In short, you want to be sure your projects hit on these dimensions.
You should also view the client-supplier relationship as a partnership. You are paying the bills and are ultimately the boss, but your suppliers provide two important capabilities you don’t have: 1) they are set up to efficiently fulfill projects, and 2) professionally, they bring a broader perspective to your project than you likely have. You want to take advantage of this perspective. The best projects combine a supplier’s knowledge of research and business situations from other contexts with a client’s knowledge of their industry, brands, and internal situations.
There is a balance of control of a project that can swing too far one way or another. On one extreme is when the client wants little involvement in the project. They seem to just want to write a check and get the project done but not too have to manage it. This is never a prescription for a quality project but it happens commonly. I once had a client that wrote a check for a project, gave me a list of objectives, and then traveled to Asia for 4 months and couldn’t be reached. While I appreciated and was flattered by his trust, the project would have been better served with more involvement from him.
Another scenario, which is more common, is the micro-managing client. This is one that wants to be involved in every research task. This can be debilitating for a supplier. Often, we try to push back and keep you informed, yet involved only in the most necessary elements of a study. When clients push back and insist on too much involvement the supplier will capitulate. But, the supplier quickly devolves to be an “order taker” and mentally checks out of the project. As a client you can tell this is happening if your supplier stops volunteering advice and if your conversations get shorter and shorter as the project moves along. Odds are you’ve reached a point where your supplier is frustrated with you and not telling you and just wants the project to be over.
The key is to keep yourself involved in all aspects where you bring more value to the project than the supplier possibly can. You will know your objectives best. You will know what has to happen when the project is over. But, you likely add little value to project execution.
We are blessed to have clients who largely strike the right balance. They are involved in key stages and always know the status of their study. But, they respect the advice we give along the way, understand the strengths we bring, and listen to our advice even if they choose not to take it. They come to us with questions that go beyond research to hear our perspective.
In short, we don’t like the micromanaging client or the absentee client. We do our best work with clients that are clearly in control of their project, but treat us as key partners along the way.