I’m writing this on a delayed Southwest Airlines flight, after four slogging days at the TMRE market research conference in Orlando, hoping to keep a promise to my kids that I’d see them before they go to bed. Somehow there’s no wi-fi on this plane, which means the follow up emails I planned to send will have to wait until late tonight, when all I’ll want to do is chug a glass of wine and pass out. Oh, and I’m sitting in middle-seat purgatory because I gave up my aisle spot for a dad and his son to sit together. So, yes, like hundreds of other people leaving the conference – I’m burned out.
The conference itself was great for us. We made a lot of new friends, learned about some exciting new research, and heard flattering feedback about our own work, both from clients and non-clients. We even landed some new business already.
But the event stands out for one big reason: I’ve never attended an industry conference where the dynamic between client-side attendees and “vendors” or “suppliers” was so palpably antagonistic. There’s always some degree of “Us versus Them” at every conference. But the sense of urgency, near-desperation, and frustration among our fellow vendors – and the sense of encroachment and frustration among the clients – felt different this time.
THE VENDOR AND CLIENT COLD WAR
It started a couple weeks before the event, when vendors began bombarding client-side attendees with unsolicited emails, phone calls, and even texts. Hell, even I was getting a handful of these spammy emails every day and I’m a Nobody. I can’t imagine what it was like for people from marquee companies like ESPN or Under Armour or Subway.
Once the actual conference convened, the client-accosting really took off. The awkward ritual of staring at a complete stranger’s mid-section, trying to see a brand name on their small-font nametag, makes everyone uncomfortable. If you were spotted adorning one of those brand names, God help you.
Client-side folks have only a few defenses. They can avoid the exhibit hall altogether. They can be dismissive or rude to everyone who corners them. Or, I noticed a new tactic, where they inserted business cards into their lanyards to block the name of the company they worked for. Clever.
I should stop here and make it 100% clear that I don’t fault the conference organizers for any of this. There was nothing about the schedule, content, attendee list, or physical layout that was out of the ordinary or problematic. All in all, it was a well-executed event.
IT’S THE ECONOMY, STUPID
The root causes of this vendor/client angst, I think, are more environmental, more macro. The market research “economy” is just brutal right now. All I heard over three days of sessions were stories of clients’ shrinking budgets, shrinking teams, greater demands, and fears of marginalization. Most mass-market U.S. brands aren’t exactly growing by leaps and bounds. I can think of only a few of our clients who didn’t go through some kind of down-sizing or reorg in recent years.
At the same time, the pace of innovation and start-up activity on the supplier side is frantic. Barriers to entry are almost non-existent in areas like survey sampling and other competitive fields. New techniques like neuroscience, text analytics, and all things “Big Data” have spawned a new wave of players. You can buy client email lists dirt cheap and use automated services to call their phones every five minutes until they answer.
All of this has created a market environment where a larger number of hard-to-differentiate suppliers are vying for stagnant or evaporating pools of money, from clients who are too stretched and too busy. It’s hard to blame clients for feeling, as one of my contacts said, “like chum,” and for looking at vendors like pesky insects they have to swat away. When 100 people call or email them every day or corner them at a conference, clients have little choice but to block everyone – even the awesome ones like us. 😉
THE VENDOR ARCHETYPE
But it’s not fair to judge the vendors (at least not most of them) in this environment either. If you’re a client-side veteran, particularly if you’ve never been on the vendor-side in your career, you’ve probably not dwelled much on this. So, here’s some food for thought:
At a conference like TMRE, you’re largely going to run into two types of people who have to schlep around the exhibit hall: Entrepreneurs and Salespeople.
Entrepreneurs have usually taken some kind of huge risk to start their business. They left a cushy job and big salary, borrowed money from a bank, family, and friends, gone months without a paycheck, mortgaged their home, forced their spouses to hold down a thankless desk job to cover bills and healthcare, leant money to their company to meet payroll, begged for investments from smug venture capitalists, taken investments from smug venture capitalists, convinced other people to take pay-cuts to join them, or – in some cases, like mine – all of the above.
Salespeople may not have taken all of these risks but their jobs are often no less stressful. The typical salesperson at a company like ours can attribute as much as half of their salary to commissions. A couple wins or losses determine whether they can send their daughter to the summer camp she loves or afford a plane ticket for a friend’s funeral. A salesperson’s job is to sell, that’s it, regardless of the market or economic climate. As sales CRM systems and marketing automation becomes more ubiquitous, it is actually making it harder, not easier, for good, tactful salespeople to sell.
For entrepreneurs and salespeople, few sales tactics are beneath them when times get tough. Dropping five grand to sit at an exhibit booth for three days, while watching people try to avoid eye contact with you, is nobody’s dream job. Rejection sucks. Every time I send someone a follow-up email after a first attempt is ignored, I swallow a tiny bit of my pride. No self-respecting person enjoys being a pest.
But, it also sometimes works. And that’s the rub. We landed a new client at TMRE in 72 hours. We have several marquee clients that I can trace to one conference or another. But I often wonder whether the damage we do to our brand by being associated with the cattle herd of booth-dwellers and cold-callers outweighs the occasional wins. In the current market climate, though, it’s a hard choice to make. Payroll and VC investors don’t wait.
DON’T ENVY THE CLIENTS EITHER
Is any of this the client’s problem? Absolutely not. Just because someone chose a risky career path or gambled their salary on the upside potential of a commission does not mean you have to buy their shitty product or reply to invasive, inconsiderate cold-calls that have no value. Just realize that most entrepreneurs and salespeople are not bad human beings.
I’ve never been on the client side but I can imagine them sneaking away together at conferences, mocking and lamenting the badgering they face from suppliers. One client person at TMRE told a room full of people a “funny” story: To play a prank on a colleague, they take stacks of his business cards to conferences and drop them in the fish bowls at every vendor booth. In the days and weeks following the event, he gets dozens of calls and emails from vendors who assume he’s genuinely interested. It’s a pretty funny prank – unless you’re a commission-dependent salesperson or payroll-desperate entrepreneur who could be spending that time and energy elsewhere. My kids would call that bullying.
And, yet, the behavior of many vendor-side people is even more deplorable. We forget that clients are under equally enormous pressure, maybe an asshole boss or several, and an organization that is constantly expecting them to do more with less. Five consecutive meeting requests sent to the same person is simply rude. Emailing their boss when they don’t reply is super-rude. Not doing any homework about their company or role before pitching them a service that is completely irrelevant to them is lazy, stupid, and rude. Lying and saying you were referred to them, when you weren’t, is, well, lying. As much as it sucks to be a vendor, it sucks as bad or worse to be a client who’s constantly harassed by vendors.
WHAT THE HELL DO WE DO ABOUT IT?
And, so, the current environment basically sucks for everyone. There don’t seem to be many easy answers, although we could start by treating each other with a minimal degree of empathy. That requires communication. And that’s why I saw an amazing ray of hope at the end of TMRE.
The last session I attended was conducted by Nancy Cox and Kelsy Saulsbury, the research gurus from Hallmark. They’re not clients of ours but I admire their work (Ask them about their “Industry Alert” publication that goes out to the entire company. A true best practice.). The ostensible goal of their session was to give suppliers guidance in how to better reach out to, pitch, and negotiate with clients. It turned into something so much more than that.
The first few slides of their presentation aimed at outlining some “Dos and Don’ts” for suppliers to heed when dealing with clients. They offered a few useful tips that I copiously jotted into my notebook. But they also used images, presumably from Hallmark cards, as metaphors for how they sometimes view suppliers. One was a picture of two giant cats waiting to pounce outside of someone’s home. Another showed a blown up building. They told stories about how their peers hide at conferences.
And then the fun began, as the first pause for Q&A elicited pointed questions and comments from the suppliers in attendance. One dude in particular (A fellow Pittsburgher, I learned later. Rock on!), boldly expressed what other vendors at the conference were feeling – frustration, dismay, even offense. It was more than a little uncomfortable for the rest of us in the audience. But, it was brilliant, necessary, well within the boundaries of professionalism, and sparked a powerful conversation.
An equal number of clients and vendors then shared ideas on how the dynamics could improve for both sides. I suggested that maybe clients could find a clearer way to communicate what types of solutions they’re interested in, so that only those kinds of vendors would reach out. Suppliers that violate that process would be penalized in some way. Clients in the room agreed that they would try harder to communicate the results and rationale of RFP decisions to non-winning respondents. There was much more.
In all, it turned into what was perhaps the most passionate and value-added conference session I’ve ever attended. I was half expecting a giant group hug at the end – fitting to have been inspired by none other than Hallmark. The only drag was that the session wasn’t held on the main stage, with the full slate of conference-goers in attendance. Everyone needed to see it.
Hopefully Nancy and Kelsy inspired an ongoing dialog across the industry. Market research clients need a vibrant vendor community – that’s where most innovation (and conference proceeds) comes from. Good vendors need their peers to follow rules of decorum and respect when dealing with clients, so that we’re not all victimized by negative vendor stereotypes. And all vendors need successful clients, whose budgets grow – so they can hire more of us.
Let’s keep talking.