Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Whys and Wherefores of RFPs in Market Research

As partners of Accelerant Research, we have collectively spent 46 years in market research and managed 750+ projects across a variety of industries in corporate-side, agency-side, and supplier-side roles. As such, we have been on the sending and the receiving sides of Requests for Proposals (RFPs). Across this history, we have been involved in studies that have succeeded by all standards and studies that were less than perfect. One thing we have come to realize is that a project is only as strong as the foundation it rests on, and that foundation starts with the RFP, as it needs to scope out the business problem and situational details from which the research is designed. There are, of course, other benefits which we will also outline.

In the market research industry, so much can be accomplished by developing and using RFPs, and so much can be lost in not doing so, or not doing so well. The main purpose of an RFP for a market research study is to be able to get a fair (read: apples-to-apples) comparison of the quality, cost, and amount of study time required that each supplier proposes for your specific study needs. Theoretically, if the exact same RFP is sent to three different research firms, these three have all been given the same chance to win the study, and judging the winner becomes an easier decision to make.

There are several important benefits of using RFPs on a regular basis in managing an organization’s research needs and budget.

Our Top Ten List of RFP benefits are:

  1. Fostering a method of fair business practice in awarding research business;
  2. Reminding research firms that any given study is subject to the throes of competition;
  3. Reducing the cycle time between expressing research needs and finalizing a plan;
  4. Preventing any possible perceptions of unfair business practices or partiality;
  5. Ensuring what you get in a study is what you wanted;
  6. Creating the perception towards you/your organization of professionalism among RFP recipient research suppliers;
  7. Simplifying decision-making in choosing the best research firm for the study;
  8. Managing internal clients’ expectations for relative cost and time requirements for a given study;
  9. Providing a clear demonstration of understanding the business purposes tied to the study itself; and
  10. Having a written document that supports the organization if certain aspects of the working relationship with the chosen supplier go awry in the process of conducting the study.

RFPs vary in terms of how prescriptive they are. Some are written in a way that dictates in advance all aspects of the research project and leaves less room for a recipient research firm to demonstrate its unique and distinguishing characteristics and capabilities. Yet, if a given study’s objectives, methodology, and study-related specifications are sound and have all been decided upon in advance, feel free to be prescriptive with your suppliers in the RFP. On the other hand, even when you are not sure about methodology, survey length, sampling, and other cost-related study specifications, either provide a “straw-man” set of specifications that you request the supplier to judge and offer specific, recommended revisions, or state up front that you seek the input from the supplier to prescribe what is best.

The most important aspect of an RFP that should be included in any RFP is the study objectives. Simply put, there is no better way to set your supplier on a course of action than by clearly stating the study objectives. Careful and comprehensive review of these objectives with internal, end-user clients will serve to enable a supplier to figure the rest out.

However, in our experiences, most RFPs are neither entirely prescriptive nor completely non-prescriptive; instead, the vast majority are somewhere in between these polar opposites. Because of this, the corporate-side researcher should be prepared to make trade-off decisions against key supplier dimensions of quality, cost, and time requirements.

In the next post, we will continue on the subject of “The Whys and Wherefores of RFPs in Market Research” and suggest specific methods and aspects of RFP writing that are crucial to the overall success of any given study.