what clients look for from a research partner

An Interview with Traci Ayer, Former Client-Side Strategist and Instructor at InterQ Learning Labs

Interview by Joanna Jones, Co-Founder at InterQ Learning Labs

This week’s post is a special one: I sat down with Traci Ayer, a marketing professional with 25 years of experience in brand and marketing strategy. Traci started her career on the client side, working on large projects ranging from Fortune 500 clients to renowned nonprofits. Traci then moved to conducting in-house research and strategy at The Seratti Group. Traci has an MBA from The University of Chicago.

In addition to working at The Seratti Group, Traci is also an instructor at InterQ Learning Labs, where she co-instructs the course on research report fundamentals.

We love Traci’s perspective because from her work on the client side, she worked with research vendors and helped implement the research findings internally. She has fountains of knowledge about the effectiveness of research implementation – and how outside research vendors can make or break a project.

I asked Traci to guide us on the keys to a successful research partnership – from the client perspective. Our interview is condensed below.


Joanna: When you were looking at firms to bring in for outside research, I’m just kind of curious, what would stand out to you about a firm? What was it about their pitch or hook that was compelling to want to hire them?

Traci: One thing I think about is industry specialists versus generalists.  In an industry like financial services, it can be helpful if they have some baseline experience because it is such a heavily regulated industry. It is nice to have a sense of regulatory environment. But in other verticals I found that it’s really important to have a generalist come in, someone who’s not specific to the industry, because they don’t bring a lot of preconceived notions.

Joanna: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. Anything else you would look for in a market research firm?

Traci: I make note of the diversity of the people on staff because it does bring a diversity of opinions. We all have biases baked into who we are and how we live. Seeing that there are different genders, different races and ethnic backgrounds, etc. is appealing.

Joana: Yeah, okay. That’s great. So let’s talk a little bit about how to make a research project successful from the client perspective. So let’s start from the very beginning. So you bring a research partner in, they pass some of the initial criteria we just covered, and when they’re working with you on the kickoff process and setting the scene. So for you, what is going to make that process successful?

Traci: I think that you want to make sure that everything is as clearly defined as possible, and I’m stealing the Simon Sinek quote, but start with “why”. Getting alignment upfront on the, ‘why are you doing this research?,’ is really important to success. Sometimes key stakeholders within an organization might not have the same ‘why’ when going into the research. Understanding that and how all of the players are thinking about the project helps define it. You begin with the end in mind. That helps set the stage for how you’re going to structure the project, what type of questions you’re going to ask, and what type of insights you can extract.

Joanna: Sure. Can you give any examples, I’m kind of putting you on the spot here, but of research partners you worked with that did a really good job setting that scene initially, getting stakeholders to agreement on the why? Are there any examples you can think of about that?

Traci: Let me take it another level deep in terms of clarity. Defining the specific objectives of the project is really important, and those flow from the why.  Getting even more granular on the objectives – it is important to think about the business objectives and then the research objectives. So as an example, when we were working with a big bank, the business objective was to expand the base of customers who might apply for a loan.  The bank was trying to develop an app for this and they presumed millennials might be more likely to apply for a loan through an app. So growing the customer base was the business objective.

Then when we thought about the research objectives, we wanted to think about the dilemma – how to expand the customer base – more broadly and without any pre-suppositions. The research objectives were to explore the motivations and attitudes and behaviors and opinions of the target consumer in the market for a loan.

A lot of times on the client side we come in with a business objective well-defined in our minds, and we really need the research firm to drill down to what the research objective will be.

Joanna: Sure. So the researcher or the research teams that are successful are the research teams that make it easier to drill into both of those then, both the business objective and the research objectives.

Traci: I think that’s right, and also, those research partners who are clear about the importance of well-defined objectives up front. That said, there is some fluidity to that. Sometimes things evolve. We learn the things we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we course-correct along the way. But being clear upfront and gaining alignment among the key stakeholders is really important to making sure the outcome of the project is successful.

Joanna: Right. Okay, good. And then do you recall any techniques in those meetings or kickoff meetings with the research team that they did to get people aligned and to agree on those objectives?

Traci: Yes, for sure. It is important for clients to identify and make a list of the key stakeholders. If this isn’t provided, researchers should ask their clients to think about all the people the project touches or whom will be using the output. It can be beneficial to conduct quick, individual interviews with those stakeholders to get all the inputs up front.  I prefer individual interviews to avoid deference to senior leadership in a group setting. Sometimes the hidden nuggets about how the research really gets used can come out better in individual chats. So first individual interviews with stakeholders, and then group alignment.

Joanna: Sure, that’s great. That’s great advice. Okay. Let’s go on to methodology then. So in terms of, again, from the perspective if you’re the client, what do research teams do with the methodology that makes them easy to work with as a research partner or stands out in terms of how they’re conducting it?

Traci:  With a good research partner, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. On the client side we might think we need a focus group to understand what our consumers think about X, but a great research partner will come in and say, ‘This is a really personal issue. A focus group isn’t the greatest way for people to be forthcoming about this information. Let’s do it as individual interviews. Let’s do it in person versus electronically. Let’s go in someone’s home and talk to them where they’re comfortable and let their guard down. That’s the best methodology for this context.’

Every project has individual needs and objectives. There are always nuances that make custom-tailoring the methodology more effective.

Joanna: Right, right, so researchers that can really think out of the box there.

Traci: Exactly.

Joanna: Yeah. Okay, I love that. Deliverables, so this is obviously a big one in research, the ‘now what?’ part, right? What have you seen, from the client side, that really makes that project successful from the deliverable?

Traci: What makes an amazing deliverable? Again, it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. It goes back to having a really good understanding of the why of the project. Understanding the why can help bring  structure to the deliverable so that it can be most useful. So as an example, I worked on a project where we were looking to understand how student loans and student debt were impacting recent college grads. And the intent of the research, the why, was to inform the national conversation around college debt. We knew our deliverable needed to be really consumer-friendly to be useful for our client. The data was delivered in infographic form, so it could be used with the media.

The most amazing deliverables are not always the most flashy. I think sometimes we get excited about different ways that we can deliver information back for our clients, but it’s important to understand the audience. Sometimes it’s great to bring in an award-winning filmmaker and have them make a video showcasing the insights. But if the audience for the results of the research are molecular scientists in the R&D group, perhaps a 20-page narrative-form detailed report is most effective. Or if your client is presenting to the C-suite, they don’t want a 20-page narrative form. They need a PowerPoint that can be digested quickly. I think the most amazing deliverables are really specific to the project and stem from who the audience is and how and how it will be used.

Joanna: Right. Yes, that’s a really a great perspective because I think, so often, researchers get caught in this box of like, well, I’ll give them a deck at the end. And then you hand over your 100-page deck, and it’s like, okay, but are they really going to be able to put that to use?

Traci: Exactly. Understanding who the audience is from the start is so important because you think about the end deliverable all the way through the project. As you’re writing the discussion guide and conducting the research, you are mentally noodling how to best serve back the data and insights to the client.

I will say, beyond tailoring the deliverable to the needs of the client, it is almost always the case that telling a good story in the deliverable makes it really powerful. There is always a story in what we learn in research, and it is the story that sticks with people. That’s a common thread through all deliverables, no matter what the format.

Video can be particularly effective when you are uncovering insights that go against the conventional thinking within an organization. I’ve come across this many times. When we deliver a video with clips of actual people explaining their opinions or beliefs, it’s hard to ignore.

Joanna: Sure, yes, that’s great feedback. Okay. So to bring this back around, what is the top piece of advice you’d give researchers on how to deliver maximum value to clients?

Traci:  I know I’m sounding repetitive at this point, but it’s being a good listener upfront. It’s getting alignment upfront about why you’re doing it. Be really crystal clear about the objectives and what you intend on delivering going in.

I’d also say, think like a partner and not an order taker. Don’t think like a barista at Starbucks where when someone says ‘I want a double tall non-fat latte’ you turn it around and give them exactly what they asked for. In our business a client might say, ‘I need a focus group in Baltimore next Tuesday.’ But as research consultants it is our job to help them take it up a level and think about the objectives. You want to be more like a personal shopper at Nordstrom. You help define the goal – to feel confident and look beautiful at event celebrating a loved one this spring.

We can best serve our clients when we re-frame the ask and take a consultative approach. Asking questions and being a good listener, as opposed to just taking an order– that’s what really makes for higher quality research and ultimately better insights.

Joanna: Yeah, absolutely. Traci – thank you so much! This has been super insightful.

But even more exciting is that you and I will be teaching a class together! We’ll be teaching a class on how to write that report and get insights to stick, and your perspective from the client side is really going to make this course amazing.

Traci: It sure is. I’m really looking forward to teaching the course at InterQ Learning Labs with you.

Joanna: Me too. Our first workshop together will be in February of 2023 in Miami. For information on how to sign up, go to this link on our website.

Thanks again, Traci. Always a pleasure to speak with you!