How is it that some clients maintain a strong insights collaboration with the same vendor partners for years and others are over after the first handful of projects are delivered? We know that the hallmarks of a strong partnership are trust, mutual respect, and a spirit of cooperation. But how do you build trust and what does trust in an insights partnership feel like?

While most insights engagements start with a contract, there is an unwritten agreement around aligned expectations that fortifies the foundation of any trusted relationship between professionals. New vendor/client relationships begin with both sides looking to develop confidence in one another.   

Will you do what you say you will do?

Can I trust you with my hard-earned credibility with my stakeholders?

If something goes wrong, can I count on you to fix it and make it right?

Trust develops when clients feel confident that their vendor partner is clear on the expected results and does what it takes to meet the expectation. It grows when the client sees that the partner brings courage, energy, and focus to the planning. It is solidified when both sides of the partnership deliver what they said they would, in the timeframe and cost estimate they committed to with an appropriate cadence of communication as the project progresses.

If the vendor partner doesn’t demonstrate a willingness to invest ample time to learn and understand how their client defines success, the relationship is leaning more toward a transactional one than a trusted strategic partnership. This is not necessarily a problem if you want transactional relationships. However, most of us are looking for long-term, trusted relationships, not only because it is typically more fulfilling, but ultimately more valuable to both parties.

Let’s review some strategies that can help insights professionals build and nurture trusted and collaborative partnerships.

Begin with the end in mind.

Early in the partnership, fight the urge to make early wins with a fast start at the expense of the critical time investment in creating an upfront agreement about what you would like to achieve together. Steven Covey called it “Begin with the end in mind. Start with a clear understanding of your destination.” 

Put another way, if you were to write a press release at the end of the year about the work you and your insights partner achieved, what would it say? Once you have clearly envisioned the end of your project, start there and work backward to determine what milestones you should achieve to arrive at that outcome. Once the milestones are established, partners can monitor progress together and determine where additional focus is needed to ensure the engagement is on track to achieve goals and objectives.

Data is data, actionable insights are priceless. Connect the dots.

Clients value research vendors who can provide usable insights rather than overwhelming them with data charts. The ability to connect the dots and present a coherent analysis is priceless. Clients become frustrated when research vendors fail to deliver insights and leave them to decipher the data on their own. They expect vendors to prioritize the most impactful information and present it in a concise and easily digestible format. Vendor partners that invest in report writers and data analysts who can deliver insights that guide decision-making demonstrate that they are willing to earn the right to be at the table developing strategy with their clients.

Data quality is a commitment.

Research rigor means zero tolerance for poor data quality. One of the main concerns expressed by clients is the quality of data provided by vendors.  If the client learns that the data quality is suspect after the results were incorporated into reporting, that puts the client in a terrible and very uncomfortable position with their stakeholder and can be detrimental to the relationship and even worse to your client’s credibility with their colleagues. Clients value transparency and expect vendors to reveal and alert them in advance if there are any surprises in the data, allowing them to prepare their teams for unexpected outcomes. It is far better to disappoint a client on the front end of a project than delay and allow the error to taint the results. Inevitably, the truth will come out and result not only in the potential loss of a client but the loss of trust – difficult to build, even harder to win back. In this scenario, everyone loses.

Clients don’t expect research partners to be perfect, but they do expect them to fix things when they go wrong.

No one needs to be perfect every time to garner trust. But partners do need to provide an honest accounting of behaviors. Trust increases when people believe their partner is acknowledging self‐awareness of shortcomings and areas for improvement.

We have all heard it many times before “You are only as good as your last project.”  I don’t think this is necessarily true. A strong insights partnership is built on delivering quality results time after time.  Even the most well-planned engagements can experience bumps in the road. Market research projects often go sideways – I liken it to an unforced-error sport. When this happens, the client will become hyper-alert, closely monitoring how their vendor partner handles the curveball.  Partners that acknowledge the reality that market research projects are wrought with potential hurdles have a plan for how they will handle the bump and they proactively share those plans with their clients. Helping a client understand the potential pitfalls ahead of time and explain in detail exactly how the partner team will navigate through the headwinds to proactively avoid the problem, if possible, demonstrates that the client’s success is the ultimate objective. If there isn’t an upfront agreement about how the partners will handle potential hurdles, confidence and trust can wane. The client will start questioning the competence of the vendor partner if a project starts veering off course and the plan to fix the problem is being developed on the fly. Reference my earlier mention of market research being an unforced-error sport. If you’ve been in the insights business for more than five minutes, you know that projects rarely go exactly as planned. Have a mitigation strategy planned upfront and share it with the client. If the worst happens, there is already a plan in place to manage the crisis.

We’re better in person than over email.

Trust is difficult to win via pixels alone. The reality is that much of your work is going to be on video call, email, and chat. Everyone is busy and video calls nearly always need to be scheduled. If your client provides you with a phone number, that is a clear invitation to use it. Pick up the phone regularly. If you are uncomfortable calling at a random time, send them a text: “Hi, Okay if I give you a call today?” It is always a good idea to ask your client how they like to communicate. Almost all of us will prefer a 10-minute phone call to a protracted email thread to answer questions. Building trust requires demonstrating to your client that you want to talk to them and that you are interested in communicating with them. If communication is only about the current project, and the transactions that must occur to get it done, we are not leaving room for the potential opportunities for the transformational delivery of services, ideas, and knowledge, and the relationship too will become a transactional one. Pick up the phone as often as appropriate.

When your only tool is a hammer, every business problem looks like a nail.

I will never forget one of the cringe-worthy lessons learned early in my career as an individual contributor selling market research solutions. My prospect, a veteran market researcher in pharma, explained his business challenge to me. Naturally eager to close a deal, I suggested that my company’s new methodology was a perfect solution to address his business problem. My prospect smiled and calmly said, “Please don’t try to shoehorn my issue into your proprietary tool. I don’t believe in coincidence.”

Clients are not interested in their vendor partners’ quarterly revenue goal. They don’t care whether their account director is close to hitting quota. A short-term sales-oriented approach does not foster long-term partnerships. Clients appreciate vendor partners who take the time to understand their business implications and provide customized solutions instead of repackaging older methodologies as “proprietary” ones. Prioritize building lasting relationships based on understanding your client’s needs and adapting to their evolving requirements.

Building trust with a client means making them feel like you see them as a person, with a unique set of challenges. When listening to a client, we should be asking ourselves, “What makes this person different from all the others I’ve dealt with?” It’s easy for most of us to fall into the trap of looking for similarities so we can use our past experiences and the tools that we already know well. That’s just how we usually work. But this doesn’t really help us, nor does it help the client.

Listening and sincerely attempting to understand the client’s problem earns the research supplier the right to deliver insights, demonstrate problem-solving capabilities, and cross-sell. Listening is not only about achieving a rational understanding of the client’s business questions but also fulfilling the desire we all share to be heard. Respect, empathy, and involvement build trust. We earn trust when the client believes that you are betting on the long-term benefits of your relationship, not on closing a deal today.

Clients are tired of bait-and-switch.

Nothing will frustrate a client more than when vendors pitch with their best team, only to assign lower-level staff to the project. Trust is undermined when clients find themselves fixing issues that a seasoned researcher should have caught or having to point out problems that should have been identified by the vendor first. Supplier partners need to uphold the promises made during the initial project pitch and maintain transparency regarding the team assigned to the project.

The same applies to costs. If the client finds themselves incurring hidden costs or fees that were not included in the upfront agreement and project scope, that is a sure way to erode trust. It is far better to disappoint a client with the news that the project will cost more than expected while scoping a project than when final deliverables present surprise costs that were not discussed.

Ideas are priceless currency.  Share them.

You would never go to dinner at a friend’s house without bringing something for the hosts. Likewise, never attend a client meeting without the gift of critical and creative thinking. While clients value proven methodologies and established vendors, they are also typically open to experimentation if a specific need arises, or a pilot project is offered. Clients will always rely on suppliers to bring them ideas about new methodologies, techniques, and tools, fostering a collaborative environment for continuous improvement.

Nurturing strong insights partnerships is not easy and it takes time, discipline, and commitment. Yet, it is one of the most fulfilling and gratifying aspects of the research profession, and it is an essential skill for long-term success in the insights industry. An insights veteran may not recall all the various projects they were involved with, but they’ll enjoy, value, and benefit from the trusted partnerships they forge throughout their career.