- Have you worked with businesses like mine?
Researchers tend to specialize by industry and by client size, so ask for a list of references and look to see if it includes your peers. If a firm has done work for a direct competitor, however, make it sign a nondisclosure agreement.
- What methodology will you use and why?
Researchers collect data in three ways: through face-to-face interviews, over the phone, and online. If you are looking for answers to very basic questions about your customers, then an online survey, which costs only pennies per respondent, is right for you. If your company is entering a new market and you want qualitative research on your new customer base, then a researcher may recommend face-to-face interviews with potential customers, although that kind of project can cost hundreds of dollars per respondent.
- Can you correct for any skew in the sample?
Certain methods allow researchers to cross-reference participants' answers in order to verify that they are telling the truth and not just saying what they think the researcher wants to hear. On this score, Internet surveys come up short: They are often anonymous and there may not be a way to crosscheck a respondent's answers. You also want to be wary of a sample that includes too many people who have taken part in numerous previous research projects because they can "become less like humans and more like expert panelists," says Joel Huber, editor of the Journal of Marketing Research and a professor at Duke University.
- Are omnibus surveys planned for the topic in which I'm interested?
Omnibus surveys are conducted on behalf of many different clients. Some research firms will let you buy a question on these generalized surveys for between $100 and $1,000. This is a good way to score original research on the cheap.
- Who will own the rights to the research?
Typically the client owns market research, but a research firm may want some rights to its work. Negotiate this up front.
- May I have a weekly progress report?
Ask your firm to report each week how many interviews it has completed and to provide you with selected interview transcripts and spending activity. This is a good way to guarantee that a study stays on the right track.