Seriously updated from the original archived version
You’ve decided that using an external resource is the most productive use of your resources to accomplish a particular objective. Consultants differ in their approach to their business relationships; our aim is to deliver value by thoroughly understanding your situation, and then designing a practical, effective means of meeting your objectives.
While this article discusses how we work with our clients, you can use this process to evaluate selecting any consultant you choose.
We’ve developed this 7-step process to make the most efficient use of your time and money:
- Preliminary Discussion and Plan Development
- Secondary (text and data) Research
- Secondary Research Analysis and Review
- Interview Guide
- Primary Research
- Analysis and Review of all Research
- Client Report
This process adapts the manufacturing concept “mass customization” for streamlining workflow. Andersen Windows uses it to produce a single, custom window for about the same amount of money per piece as if they produced thousands. We use it to acquire, assemble, analyze and interpret information specifically for you. This efficiency allows us to take the time to establish a collaborative relationship with you and to help you understand what you need to do to reach your specific business objectives, at a realistic, reasonable price. If you like, we’ll also help you implement the recommendations.
Here’s how the 7-step research process (and we) work with you.
Step 1: Preliminary Discussion and Plan Development
Achieves mutual understanding, maximizes value
We draft an outline, describing what we’ve learned from discussions with you and propose a methodology and fee range, depending on several possible options. Once we agree to work together, we meet with you in person (or by telephone/conference call if necessary) to refine the proposal, which becomes the contract.
During the meeting, we:
Learn Your Current Situation
- Scope and depth of information already available internally
- Determine information gaps (what needs to be obtained)
This is to avoid reinventing what you already have, or having us start digging a foundation when all you need is a new carpet. Keep in mind, however, that some information deteriorates with age (e.g. salary levels or competitive information), so we need to determine what information is still useful and what could be disastrously misleading.
Agree Upon Assignment Objectives
- Ultimate use of information
- Level of confidence for information (general trends vs. statistical significance)
- Specificity level
You need to focus your resources and attention on the ultimate goal of serving your customers better. The review of the assignment objectives keeps everyone on track.
Set Major Phases, Milestones
Except for short, well-defined projects, contact and progress checks should be scheduled. If you wait until the final report, you may find out that you’ve ended up in Antarctica instead of at the North Pole. Open, on-going communication needs to be a two-way street, especially if you’ve uncovered information that would contribute to the fund of knowledge to be considered in making important decisions. We mail, fax, e-mail, telephone and even deliver interim updates on a regular basis.
Agree Upon Timing, Budget, Other Criteria
We quote you a fixed fee (rather than the standard hourly) price, with a not-to-exceed direct expense reimbursement. This way you will know exactly what the work will cost. If you prefer another method, we will be happy to discuss other options with you.
Select Format of Report
Some options or a combination, include electronic, fomal bound report, video conference or in-person discussion. You may prefer short, “executive summary” reports, accompanied by graphs and charts. Or you may choose to receive a detailed narrative and complete appendix materials. For customer satisfaction and other surveys with many data points, we accompany the detailed report with the raw numbers in a relational database format for your own private analysis.
- Our internal
- Your internal
Involve your staff in the work where available and practical. This saves you time and money; it also simplifies the implementation process when your people participate in the research process.
- Quantitative (including software to be used)
Generally, both “soft” (qualitative) information and “hard” data and analysis are important to provide the basis for good decision-making. Beware, however, of over-precision of results (e.g. reporting figures to the 5th decimal place when the accuracy warrants one decimal).
What are the measurable issues you want to understand better? How specifically do you want to measure them? It’s a matter of measuring the right things as well as measuring things right. You don’t want to pay for information that isn’t useful. This preliminary discussion makes sure all defined factors are important to your ultimate objectives.
You shouldn’t have to pay for a technical Ph.D. to do clerical work; we match the people to the work and tell you who will be doing which work on your project.
Step 2: Secondary (Text And Data) Research
Reinforces understanding, facilitates primary research (getting information through people)
We believe it’s important to establish a literature and database monitoring process throughout the duration of all client assignments. This accomplishes three important things: (1) information is completely up-to-date; (2) personal interviews are much more efficient because there is no wasted time covering the basics; (3) the research can be modified if significant new developments are discovered during the work process.
Our experience offers you rapid and systematic accumulation and updating of information from private and government sources. Using multiple sources is a way to check data reliability or determine its range. This process continues during the primary research and analysis phases.
- Evolution of situation
- Rationale/motivation for past decisions
“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” holds particularly true for background research. Reinventing the wheel wastes everyone’s time, money and talent. We’d rather “stand on the shoulders of giants” to help you reach your goals. (Re-read Peter Drucker’s earliest books to see what we mean). No need to go all the way back to the Jurassic, though.
- Key issues
- Coverage level
Information needs to be well selected and well managed … you’ll drown in it otherwise. While recognizing that the “devil is in the details,” we separate the wheat from the whole lot of chaff that’s out there, identifying the data elements related to your decision needs.
- Information gaps
- Primary resources
- Major players (customers, competitors, suppliers, influencers, resources)
Relevant information comes from many sources and appears in many different forms.
- Data/statistics, existing models, benchmarks
- Foundation to build upon
These are used as the basis for developing realistic recommendations.
Step 3: Secondary Research Analysis, Review
Provides on-going research direction
Are you information rich and knowledge poor? Use ongoing qualitative (general) and quantitative (numbers) analysis of the data and information to guide you in making “course corrections” while keeping your eye on your ultimate objectives. We keep you informed and up-to-date throughout the course of our literature and data findings.
- Initial hypothesis
- Approach for primary research, if any
Start out with an idea of what you think the most likely outcome of the research might be. While some may argue that this will bias your investigation, that’s simply not true unless you deliberately ignore indications and facts contrary to your initial premise. Basically, you want to prove or disprove that, for example, the overseas market for a your technology will grow faster than the domestic market over the next 5 years, that software package X is better suited to your inventory tracking needs than software package Y, or that insurance claims are down in one of your facilities because you installed better lighting there.
Let’s say you need broader brush direction for important resource allocation decisions, e.g. the market for your proprietary technology or expertise is slowly eroding and you believe you can recoup your considerable investment in another market or even a totally new application. Even in this case, there are some premises you can make: is the technology likely to be superceded by something better, faster, cheaper (in which case, divest). Would emerging, growth markets such as eastern Europe or parts of the Pacific Rim be likely markets?
- Number and scope of factors important to your decision-making
- Level and depth of detail
- Apparent upper/lower limits
- Develop preliminary models
Sophisticated market databases now provide you the ability to “drill down” through the numbers to get as specific as the characteristics of a single individual or household. Other relational databases “slice and dice” the data to bring you information on hundreds (or even thousands) of different combinations of factors. We set up the data so that it can be queried and customized to your exact needs.
Your market share, even in a narrow niche, isn’t likely to be 100%. How high is high enough? What level of environmental contamination is acceptable? At what point does measurement or the cost of incremental improvement start increasing exponentially?
Qualitative and Quantitative
This is where some patterns begin to emerge: the greatest influences, the trend upward or downward. Contradictions become apparent: can they be reconciled? which resources should we contact to help support or disprove an important issue?
- Draft outline
Once the majority of the secondary resources have been identified and examined, we assess the extent of the information obtained, advancement toward the milestones and begin drafting an outline of the final report, which serves as a basis for one or more interim reports, as needed. We design all reports to be immediately-usable and actionable, and review them with you.
Study carefully all reports you receive from us or any other outside contractors you may use. You might have internal or external information that could contribute greatly to helping reach your objectives. Recently-hired personnel can be particularly valuable sources of new information.
Step 4: Interview Guide
Generates new information, broadens perspective
Although the interview guide (if there is one) may be structured, it is never rigid. Its dual purpose is to assure that all important issues are covered and to respect the time of the person being interviewed.
- Information needs
- Clarification needs
It’s usually a good idea to incorporate some “known” information obtained from your literature search into a person-to-person (or even group) interview. This helps to: establish your credibility; allow the respondent to provide his or her deeper insights into an issue; and paves the way for getting new, unpublished information.
- Interview sources
- Interview opportunities
Government sources are frequently heavy on statistics and spell out the letter of the law; industry sources, on the other hand, are particularly good for learning the dynamics and impact of the factors being examined.
- Category of resource
- Interviewer style, if necessary
Talking with corporate executives yields a different set of responses than those you’d obtain from research engineers or plant managers. It’s important to match the issues with those you’re interviewing.
Test and revise
It’s also a good idea to conduct dress rehearsal interviews and schedule a set time for review and potential revision of the interviews 5-10% of the way through. There are almost always new issues and insights learned from the people we talked with that were not apparent to you or to us during the original drafts. However, it’s also important not to constantly alter the content of the interviews if you are looking for statistical significance.
Step 5: Primary Research
The purpose of talking with people (primary or field research) is to build a unique knowledge base for you.
- Interview value
- Benefit/cost ratio
Where possible, use trade shows, seminars and other occasions when your interview resources are likely to congregate. You’ll save a ton of time, money and the frustrations of the dreaded game of telephone tag.
- Information exchange
- Personal approach
It’s only fair to give something to get something. For personal interviews, many of our clients prepare a graph or table summarizing information that may be of value to the person being interviewed. This token acknowledges the person’s time and expertise and helps establish a positive, professional tone to the meeting.
Whether it’s yours or the organization of the person being interviewed, we never violate a request to keep specified information confidential. Where appropriate, we may summarize or generalize comments without attribution to the source.
Step 6: Analysis and Review of All Research
Organizes research results, develops report design
What does all this information we’ve painstakingly gathered mean? What are the numbers really saying? How shall we query the data? How many levels of WHY? should we ask?
- Qualitative, quantitative information
- Appendix material
The purpose of everything we’ve done is to fulfill your objectives. Likewise, all the relevant information gathered, analyzed and presented have the same purpose. You won’t have to wade through reams of data (that’s what the appendix is for) or “filler” to quickly grasp the situation and practical courses of action.
We tailor standard analytical and graphing programs to your specific information needs.
Assess validity of information/analysis
Different perspectives of the same information can be subject to diverse interpretation (using statistics to support or “prove” opposing viewpoints is a favorite political pastime). It’s important to look carefully at what is or isn’t included in any table or graph and the conclusions drawn from them.
- Assumptions, formulae/models
- Graphics, tables, illustrations
You will know all the assumptions we’ve made, so if your factors are different from ours, you can make appropriate adjustments to both the analysis and conclusions. To illustrate important concepts and issues more clearly, we frequently design our own diagrams.
- Finalize report
- Prepare presentation
We keep you informed of the major results, conclusions and important content as we assemble the final report and presentation. Because of the ongoing communication between us, there will be no surprise revelations for which you might not be prepared. (However, we can’t change the results to match someone’s expectations…although we’ve been asked to do this more than once).
- Review major results, conclusions and recommendations
- Brief your team
It’s particularly important to discuss the final results with your staff in advance of the formal presentation, especially when these results do not mesh with their expectations. Although you’ve likely been communicating regularly, they might be entirely unprepared for hard evidence of underperformance or misjudgment. This preview will allow your staff time to prepare a response and positive action plan to address the situation.
Step 7: Client Report
Communicates, discusses findings
We think it’s an important consultant responsibility to educate as well as inform. Every consulting project can and should expand your organization’s skills and capability, even if you should decide that it’s more practical or efficient to continue using an outside resource. As we noted in the methodology section of Step 1, when you and your staff get involved, we all win.
Colorful visual detail, especially graphs, charts, diagrams, and bullet points help convey our report’s message “at a glance.” However, we don’t skimp on narrative unless you explicitly request a skeletal outline. If the report will be used predominantly by non-English speaking people, we compress the text and make liberal use of icons and other visuals.
- By function, other focus
Most of the time, we cover the critical issues of the one-paragraph abstract and 2-3 page executive summary in a 15-minute introductory presentation Discussion of specific details depends entirely upon your requirements and may last a full day (and occasionally longer).
- Impact of alternatives
Managers all struggle over balancing long and short term objectives. The assumptions we made yesterday may no longer hold tomorrow. Full disclosure of our assumptions gives your staff the information they need to make intelligent decisions now and if (when) those assumptions are no longer valid.
This is the target of all the effort on both our parts. All the steps and explanations outlined above were necessarily generic to embrace large and small projects of various types. Our actual recommendations are very specific and, as we noted earlier, actionable.
Contingency plans responding to economic, competitive, legislative, emergency, internal changes and other “what ifs” are part of a responsible plan of action.
Follow-up and (if requested) assist with implementation
It’s a well-documented fact that business plans, reports and studies often wind up on the shelf, all but forgotten after a month or two. We keep in contact — sometimes with additional relevant information — so you can ask questions and provide us feedback. Let us know if you’d like us to help directly or through a referral to put any recommendations into practice.
What does all of this research cost? As little as several hundred dollars to get some quick answers, up to well in the six figures for comprehensive studies for large clients. It all depends on you and your particular needs and preferences.
For some of our existing clients, reports or presentations are not required at all, and informal communications suffice when there are urgent needs that require immediate attention.
- Management. Functions: Business Intelligence; Strategy Development
- Management. Sector: RELEVANT ACROSS SECTORS
- Management. Soft Skills: Change Navigation; Communication
Questions or comments? Contact us by phone, fax, mail or e-mail. Thanks. We appreciate your interest.