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Stakeholders Surveys: Follow-on from the 2013 survey

By the time you read this article, the 2014 Asia Research stakeholder survey will have been run, won, dissected, and reported. As this is the third such survey, we should be able to note any trends and recurring themes.

Has the more positive client sentiment, as reported in the 2013 survey, been evidenced in this survey? This is perhaps the most important consideration, as the research industry’s future focus is driven by client sentiment and actions. The last survey suggested that client sentiment had been enhanced by the multitude of choice as the supply side (agencies) has fragmented. Were clients expecting greater options of less expensive research and faster turn-around times? Did they factor in the ever-present danger of inferior output resulting from this fragmentation?

In addition to the fragmentation factor, we have also seen the compression of research providers resulting from mergers and acquisitions. That factor also impacts on employment opportunities.

Fragmentation has resulted in a number of casualties. Events in the past twelve months have seen a number of agencies reduce their researcher numbers, while some have permanently closed their doors. Why has this happened?

There are a multitude of reasons, some particular to our industry and others peculiar to specific organisations. At the core, in all situations, must be client sentiment and decision-making.

Buyers of research have been very determined and very effective in driving fee revisions and, in some cases, insisting on significant compromise in many aspects of conducting projects. Clearly, this is not good for the industry as a whole and for certain research agencies in particular. Output quality, rigourousness of data analysis, and validity of recommendations have significantly suffered in far too many instances.

The conundrums facing research agencies are many: opt for profitless prosperity to keep the engine operating and the wheels turning; decline business to retain a fee base as, once driven down, it is very difficult to drive fees up to previous levels; contract out low-margin aspects of the project and retain the “ownership” aspect, which can lead to inferior output.

Has the period from the previous survey to this seen the positive client sentiment materialise and, if so, who have been the beneficiaries?

When assessing benefits, perhaps we should be thinking of conducting a “Future Survey” to focus minds on where the research industry is heading and what changes are taking place. How will the industry embrace the rapid rise in automation and technology? And, just as importantly, how will the industry address the constant issue of attracting talent?

Across the region, the chronic shortage of people entering the industry is a matter warranting serious and immediate attention. Part of the problem is a combination of research providers struggling to retain margin, thus impacting on their ability to attract and competitively remunerate talented people, and the constant pressure from research buyers to drive down costs.

Research buyers must recognise the value of research by accepting fee structures that will sustain the industry. Excessive focus on profit and ROI on one side of the coin can have a detrimental impact on the other. Research providers are, in some countries, now forced to offer minimum salaries, which impacts on their attitude towards employing juniors who possess no research experience. A further disincentive has been the rising number of instances of employers relying more heavily on contract workers with no offer of either permanency or skills enhancement. Researchers as mercenaries for hire? Who’d have thought it?

We need to find better ways of addressing margin pressure, the lack of people entering the industry, and how we reverse the notion of not employing someone because they have no experience. How will new entrants ever attain experience?

We really could do with conducting a comprehensive “Future Survey”.