Acknowledging Corporate Research Challenges
By David Schneer
I once managed the Customer Insights function for a huge technology company. Let’s call that company AwesomeTech. This is where I learned the intricacies of getting things done in a corporate environment.
At AwesomeTech, I felt the exhilaration of rising to a good research challenge. I also felt Hulk-sized frustration.
The most heartburn-inducing challenges included budget reductions, internal contract review/processing requirements, and last-minute research requests. In an effort to preserve my sanity and get my job done, I devised creative ways to get things done more efficiently.
A corporate researcher’s sole purpose is to support internal teams and overall corporate objectives, and in turn, do their part to keep shareholders happy. To do this, you need to protect your research budget and get critical data into the hands of the people who need it as quickly as possible. A research retainer streamlines the entire research process and turns everyone into rock stars.
Our next post will address the definitive advantages of research retainers and outline the steps to setting one up in your organization. But first, let’s acknowledge the challenges that can be resolved with the research retainer.
Challenge #1: Budget Reductions
The entire vibe of publicly traded AwesomeTech could change dramatically from quarter to quarter, based on whether the corporate earnings calls were optimistic or pessimistic. And those shifting vibes brought shifting budgets. With every new fiscal year, I would be given a budget, which during economic turbulence would often be reduced from one quarter to the next.
From time to time, I also found myself in frantic “use-it-or-lose-it” budget situations. Today, I see this trend in many of our clients’ organizations. At the end of fiscal periods, our clients often scramble to commission multiple simultaneous projects at the eleventh hour in a desperate, last-minute attempt to preserve future research funds.
Well guess what? You’re not the only department pressing legal and finance departments during frenzied times. This is bound to banish your contracts to the mountain of documents choking their approval queues.
Challenge #2: Internal contract processing requirements
All companies are different. Some have streamlined contract review/approval processes, while others are more complicated.
AwesomeTech fell somewhere toward the latter. For example: contracts above a certain dollar amount required a full legal review and procurement team audit (bonus: add up to several months for that process!); a second tier/lower threshold amount required only legal review/edits and departmental approval; contracts below a particular amount could be reviewed and approved within your own department.
Rigorous approval processes are there for a reason. They’re important. But they can also create unmanageable barriers for researcher teams whose success depends on responsiveness and agility. The issue for market researchers boils down to the most precious of commodities: Time. Whether on the client or supplier side, researchers are constantly asked for more/better/faster.
Complex contract review and approval processes not only handcuff researchers but they also bind up their internal stakeholders. The more onerous the approval process, the tighter the bind. At AwesomeTech, I was both paid for and judged by my ability to support corporate objectives, but my hands were frequently tied right out of the gate.
Challenge #3: Last-minute project requests
Here’s a familiar scene: A product manager bursts into your office and says, “I have 10 days to determine package messaging for Product X, but I have no idea what consumers really want. Can you help me? Oh, and one more thing, we need feedback from folks in Antarctica, the Gobi Desert, and the Mariana Trench.” These geographies are obviously a stretch, but you get the idea.
As the PM lingered in my office, my first thought was often “Why wasn’t research built into the product roadmap to begin with?”. After all, I had only recommended this a gazillion times over the years. But I would quickly snap back into the situation— “Holy smokes, how am I going get this done?!”
Situations like these are particularly painful for organizations that have onerous contract review/approval processes. Unless a project was commissioned by AwesomeTech’s C-suite, who by necessity could circumvent procedures with a snap of a finger, I was immediately hamstrung. So were my internal stakeholders, customers, and ultimately, AwesomeTech’s shareholders too. My inability to support that effort was a direct contradiction to my functional mission.
While I can’t say for certain that these challenges cause our client stakeholders to break out in sweat or tears, I’ve lived that life, and my money is on both. In the end, it was up to me to come up with a creative solution we could all live with. And so, the research retainer was born.
Check back soon for Part II, where we will dig into the many ways a research retainer can unlock a whole new level of agility for you and your team and outline the steps you need to create one of your own.