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Research Tip: Set Realistic Expectations

We’re looking to the research to tell us which way to go.

I’ve heard that statement in countless meetings with clients.  Allowing that expectation to live through the project is a recipe for disaster.

Research is a tool, not a magical seer that will provide the answers to life’s mysteries.  It is the marketers who must decide “which way to go.”  Those who abdicate that responsibility to some outside entity are not doing their job.

Our job as research consultants is to set realistic expectations for what can be accomplished by a research study.  Chief among them is to make our clients understand that what will come from the research is information to inform their decision, not a decision itself.

There are far too many considerations in any marketing decision to ever be captured in survey results.  The operating cost and distribution logistics implications of decisions need to be examined.  Staffing levels and skill need to be assessed.  The action’s fit with the firm’s longer term strategy must be investigated.  None of these questions can be answered by a survey.

For the most part, addressing this issue directly is a bit abstract.  In practice, we should be managing expectations in more concrete ways. Some things to do at the beginning of a project:

  • Explain any limitations of the data collection method.
  • Explain what can, and can,t  be inferred from the output of analytical techniques you intend to use
  • Explain why some questions they have are not answerable in a survey.  There usually are a few.
  • Tell the client how long it will take to do the work properly.
  • Clearly lay out exactly what information they will get from the results.
  • Summarize this discussion in writing.

Some things not to do:

  • Fail to challenge an expectation when you know it can’t be done
  • Tell the client that we can “wait and see what the data looks like” to decide if something can be done or not
  • Agree to deadlines that will preclude thoughtful analysis on the data

By setting clear, realistic expectations upfront, you will go a long way to ensuring a successful project.  Fail to do this, and you better prepare yourself for some uncomfortable conversations and a former client who doesn’t think much of you.

“Too bad if the client is unhappy, their expectations were unrealistic” is a common after the fact rationalization when a project goes bad.

About the Author

Ed Erickson is the President of Erickson Research, a Chicago market research consulting firm. You can find Ed on LinkedIn and .

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