Five Guaranteed Steps for Being Considered a Business Partner and Not “Just a Researcher”

I’ll never forget the day I met Jan Fields, president of the Central Division of McDonald’s USA. A colleague had set up a meeting with Jan and we met, I thought, to discuss her research needs. But as I described the research I had conducted for various organizations, I could see I was losing her as well as the opportunity to work with her division. She interrupted me gently and politely to explain that McDonald’s already had a great deal of research resources and she wasn’t looking to do the “same-old, same-old research.”

I immediately stopped, took a deep breath and started over. I asked, “What challenges are you facing?” That exchange led to my understanding of Jan’s needs and the creation and completion of a consulting engagement that resulted in the following testimonial from Jan:

"I was hesitant to do more research, because I felt like it would be the same-old same-old. But the way Jenny asked questions was different. They were questions that didn't permit traditional responses. As a result, we ended up with a lot of ideas we can use — everything from the type of information I need in order to communicate, to how I communicate it. In both cases Jenny was able to lay out a format that was extremely helpful and practical, and the results ended up being actionable by our own staff versus something that was only actionable if the researcher was there to implement it."
- Jan Fields President, Central Division McDonald's

My experience working with Jan and the McDonald’s Central Division forever changed my approach to consulting and helped me develop my “Five Guaranteed Steps for Being Considered a Business Partner and Not Just a Researcher” that I will share with you now:

1. Stop talking and start listening. As researchers, we have a tendency to focus on our own industry. We live and breathe research because that’s our area of expertise. However, our internal and external clients face other agendas. It’s important to listen first and get a true understanding of our client’s condition, offering examples and talking about methodologies only as they are relevant to the client’s situation.

2. Develop objectives that are business outcomes, not research methodologies. Clients, whether internal or external, don’t hire us with the objective of doing focus groups or conducting a survey. They hire us because they want to sell more products or improve their employee retention and they need the information we can uncover that will help them to do so.

It therefore makes sense to build a research program around the client’s business objectives rather than the particular research approach that will be used to obtain the information needed to achieve those objectives. For example, a goal for a communications audit might be to increase employee engagement or improve the cost effectiveness of internal resources, rather than the typically stated objective of determining the effectiveness of communications vehicles or measuring the readership of a publication.

The more you can speak your client’s language (i.e. “move more cases”) and associate what you are doing with their bottom line and values, the greater your likelihood of success at helping them to improve their condition.

3. Determine your intervention(s) and measures of success. Note: these may or may not be what your client has requested. You can imagine how often JRS Consulting receives a call requesting five focus groups or an electronic survey of all employees. Our response always begins the same say, “Yes, we can do that. But let’s back up for a minute. What are you trying to accomplish with this research? And assuming we move forward and work together on this, how will we know we’ve been successful?”

Only after we understand the business objectives and how the client defines success do we move forward on recommending an approach for achieving the agreed-upon goals. Quite often that means our assignment goes beyond the use of traditional research tools to a collaborative partnership with our client so that when we walk out their door, they are poised for success.

For example, for an organization that was looking to create a communications function for a regional office, we defined success as having the function up and running by the end of our assignment. Our interventions therefore included conducting focus groups and interviews with regional staff to identify communications current practices and needs, developing a communications plan, creating a job description, interviewing potential candidates and hiring a communications manager. The point here is to ensure that your outcome meets your needs, rather than conforms to a standard or typical research approach.

4. Implement and calibrate your approach. You know the old saying about the best laid plans? After 25 years in the consulting business, there’s only one thing I’m absolutely sure of – it’s unlikely that everything will go exactly according to plan. Your value as an internal or external consultant is not only your ability to carry out the intervention that you have agreed upon with your client. Your value lies in your ability to rapidly respond to unexpected developments, turn on a dime to incorporate a change of events, and exploit opportunities that may arise. That’s what makes you a true business partner rather than simply a supplier delivering five focus groups or survey results.

During the implementation of your work, it’s critical that you maintain a relationship with your buyer – or ultimate client – to keep him or her informed of your progress as well as of any unexpected findings along the way. For example, during a project that involved interviewing franchise owners about how customers were responding to promotional materials and advertising for a new corporate product, we learned that the product’s box was flawed, frustrating franchise employees as they struggled to work with it. Instead of waiting until project completion and the provision of the report, I called my client immediately who relayed this unexpected finding to his operations department. As a result, the box was immediately corrected.

If your research uncovers unexpected or bad news, don’t wait until the end of the project to inform your client. It’s critical to maintain ongoing contact – at least every other week – so that he or she is aware of how the project is proceeding as well as of any bumps in the road. Of course, this contact should occur regularly so that you aren’t only perceived as a harbinger of bad news.

5. Finalize and disengage. The secret of being a good guest is knowing when to leave. The same could be said of a good consultant. Once you have completed your assignment, it’s time to confirm the results of your work with your client and either close the door for now or begin on a subsequent assignment. If you have clearly established measures of success for your work, it will be obvious to both you and your client that your interventions have accomplished the goals and you can shake hands and celebrate the success of your work.

Many research staff members and consultants can effectively implement and report on the data obtained from various methodologies. What truly distinguishes an outstanding research partner is the ability to understand the client’s condition and use our expertise to improve that situation.


Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting, Inc., a firm that helps organizations build leading brands and efficiently attract and retain employees and customers. Subscribe to the free JRS newsletter on

© JRS Consulting, Inc. 2007