Client Side vs. Supplier Side Market Research Roles: What are the surprises and the insights from someone who has done both?

Written by Allen Broome, Team Leader Client Insights, Edward Jones

I’ve spent 30 years in market research. And yes, I know 30 years is a long time (as this is when I typically have certain younger people I work with share annoying tidbits like how they were in kindergarten 30 years ago). Nearly all of those 30 years have been on the client side. Then, I joined Quester on the supplier side in a business development role — and either went to the dark side or left the dark side depending on who you ask. Now, almost over a year later, I’m returning to the client side. I loved my time on the supplier side working with such amazingly talented people. It gave me a new perspective on what suppliers can do, but it also made me more self-aware of what motivates me as a researcher and best leverages my talents. Candidly, my return to the client side was triggered by a unique opportunity in an industry I’ve always been fascinated by – personal finance and investment. But that’s another story … for this discussion I want to explore my experience on supplier side vs. client side.

When people ask me the difference between client side and supplier side in market research, my impression is that they are expecting me to respond in favor of Team Supplier or Team Client. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to share what I’ve learned in my experiences that gives me a much more balanced perspective to the industry going forward.

What I Learned On the Supplier Side

1. It Takes a Team – When I was client side, I naively assumed that the supplier’s research elves came out at night to sort the tedious details. In reality, over the last year I’ve watched a broad and deep team cover all the critical details of a project. I leave with a much greater appreciation of the talented folks behind the scenes at a supplier that a client may never see.
• Lesson to both groups: Find a way to recognize and appreciate all of the contributors.

2. Business Development Has Some Surprises – I’m not sure how much COVID is factoring into it, but candidly, the business development role had much less human interaction than I expected. When clients don’t respond, there can be a sense of isolation. As I move back to the client side, I hope I retain this insight and treat my suppliers with a bit more empathy. Sharing a quick update helps to build relationships and connections that may even result in their extra effort on a project.
• Lesson to both groups: A periodic catch-up on the state of the business and evolving research needs is never a waste of time.

3. What Clients Do Well – There are some amazing clients out there who are engaged throughout the process. They give good context beyond the overt objectives as well as provide closure on the back end. One thing many client-side researchers forget is that by the end of a project, the supplier team is heavily invested in the insights and outcomes. When clients circle back with updates on the business impact, it can make the team’s day.
• Lesson to clients: It is impossible to share too much information on a project.

4. What Clients Sometimes Don’t Do as Well – There are some clients who tend to see the relationship as purely transactional. In these cases, the supplier gets the job done, but it makes me wonder if there could have been a small but important insight uncovered had the team known a bit more.
• Lesson to clients: Put a little extra effort in sharing context as it could transform an otherwise good project into a great one.

5. What Can Be Frustrating for Suppliers – While we all know there are some tough requirements on the client side (e.g., procurement requirements for multiple bids), giving the supplier some honest context can help set realistic expectations as proposals that can take days to create.
• Lesson to clients: Please, just be candid and provide timely follow-up on proposals.

What I Learned on the Client Side

6. What’s Behind the Curtain? – As a client, I didn’t always fully appreciate the capabilities of certain suppliers. I would tend to mentally pigeonhole them and think of them as one dimensional when they were capable of much more. I realized this was happening from the other side when potential clients would think of Quester merely as the “AI supplier” and not acknowledge the robust methods augmenting the AI or the strategic thinking involved in applying insights.
• Lesson to clients: Listen with an open mind to the full capabilities a supplier can bring.
• Lesson to suppliers: Don’t claim you can do everything. Be clear about where you excel.

7. No Smoke and Mirrors – Clients always value substance over the sales pitch. In other words, no BS. For example, many use the term “AI,” but over-hype its actual level of use in their company.
• Lesson to suppliers: Make sure your claims aren’t just marketing hooks.

8. Meetings Dominate on Client Side – Folks on the supplier side don’t always appreciate how slammed client-side researchers are with internal meetings. Client-side researchers are pulled a million different directions, so they have to be protective of their time. You are not their only priority.
• Lesson to suppliers: Be strategic and purposeful about how you use the client’s time.

9. True Supplier Partners Offer Perspective – For a client-side researcher, the relationship with key supplier partners is multifaceted. They depend on suppliers to meet the stated research objectives, but there is an unstated goal to “make them look good” as well. A supplier’s work reflects on the client. Also, they count on their suppliers to give them an outside perspective they can’t get at their inwardly-focused company.
• Lesson to suppliers: Share your perspective and experiences – your client needs them.

10. Client Side Wears Many Hats – Client-side researchers toggle between being researchers and internal consultants. So many, like me when on the client side, want to do the research but are stuck in meetings helping internal partners interpret the research. Don’t get me wrong, consultation and activation are critical (or we would ALL be out of jobs!), but they often want to get into the weeds of a project themselves and are envious of the suppliers’ ability to be hands-on.
• Lesson to both sides: The grass may well always be greener on the other side … and an appropriate lesson to end on I think.

The Key Takeaway — We all bring something unique to the relationship. When each side recognizes and leverages the power of the other’s full capability, the combination of skills can create real and substantive business impact at clients’ companies. In the end, it’s about true partnership. When our relationships are less transactional and more collaborative, we all benefit — regardless of our role. And … you never know when you will go to the proverbial “other side.”


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