How do clients and prospects view my firm’s brand? What are we known for in the marketplace? Why are we more – or less – visible than the firms we’re competing against?

These are common questions professional services firms ask when evaluating their brand. The answers can come directly from the individuals exposed to your brand every day – your clients, prospects, referral sources, influencers, and even your own internal staff.

However, uncovering their true perspective is no easy task. The decisions made early in researching your brand can uncover truths… or they can lead you down a misguided path.

Particularly for professional services firms, there are two decisions in the data collection process that can impact the results of a brand research endeavor:

  • How you will assemble your questionnaire
  • How you will collect responses

The Questionnaire

When developing and assessing the questions to ask your target audience, it’s important to consider the holistic view your clients may have of your firm. No one question can address all the many aspects and complexities of a strong professional services brand.

The questions you ask must also be worded carefully to not introduce a bias. If there is a particular aspect of your firm you want to learn more about – like a potential new service or new industry to serve – it does not always make sense to ask your target audience about it directly. Rather, a hypothesis on a new service or industry could be validated if the sentiment comes up organically. More general open-ended questions can often provide actionable, unbiased insight.

Next, the order of your questions must make sense for both the interviewer and respondent. If a particular question is asked too early, it could influence responses to subsequent questions. For instance, asking about a client’s satisfaction with your firm should come after asking why your firm was considered in the first place. Reminding the respondent of any negative (or positive) experiences working with your firm may bias the response.

The Collector

Another key instrument in the brand research process is determining how data will be collected.

For many professional services firms, each client is unique and has very nuanced challenges. It’s important to capture these perspectives on a one-on-one basis. While focus groups may be effective for product market research, groupthink can water down any specific challenges unique that one particular client.

Capturing individual perspectives one-on-one is most effectively done through a phone interview, online survey, or a combination of the two. Each method has its pros and cons, making it important to balance between quality and quantity of the data.

Let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of using an online survey instrument versus in-depth interviews (IDIs) when considering conducting primary brand research.

Online Surveys

What are the benefits?

  • Cost effectiveness.There is some maintenance and monitoring involved during the data collection period. But when compared to IDIs, the ability to capture more responses allows online surveys to be more cost effective.
  • Online surveys can save time.Respondents can complete an online survey faster than if they participated in an IDI. Additionally, identifying a time that fits the interviewer and respondent’s schedule can be a hassle. Online surveys allow for flexibility and can be accessed at a time that is convenient for the respondent.
  • The ability to capture a more representative sample of a larger population.If your firm has 40,000 clients, interviewing all 40,000 would not be feasible. With an online survey, you have the ability to capture the responses of a more representative sample, if not the entire population.

What are the drawbacks?

  • Need for incentives.Depending on your circumstances, the audience that you are trying to reach may not be friendly enough to take your survey out of goodwill. Respondents will want something in return for taking the time to complete your survey. Incentives might include exclusive access to the results of your research, but you might have to resort to old-fashioned bribery. Gift cards with broad appeal (like Starbucks, iTunes, or Amazon) are effective incentives.
  • Non-completion.Online survey respondents don’t always answer every question on a survey. Sometimes, they will exit the survey before completing it. There are a number of factors that impact completion rate, which is why building a strong questionnaire is important.
  • Harder to get detail or explanation.Most survey respondents opt not to type out detailed, explanative responses. Because of this, open-ended questions are difficult to ask in survey format. Instead, closed-ended “select all that apply” questions may be used to keep the respondent engaged and prevent a high drop-off rate. Unfortunately, this practice prevents respondents from using their natural language when answering questions.

In-Depth Interviews (IDIs)

What are the benefits?

  • The ability to probe respondents. A talented interviewer is going to get more depth of information than someone might volunteer on a survey. This benefit is particularly useful when dealing with a smaller sample size or a segment whose opinion is critical in determining what direction your brand should go.
  • Candid Conversation.Having a third party conduct interviews will make interviewees feel more comfortable expressing their true feelings and opinions. Coupled with the flexibility of improvisation, a talented interviewer can make an IDI feel more like a conversation than a series of rigid questions.
  • Open-ended questions. The use of IDIs gives the interviewer the opportunity to capture the nuances and natural language used by respondents. Additionally, responses to open-ended questions might be surprising, giving you new insight into your audience’s perspective.
  • The ability to ask more questions.Keeping the number of questions to a minimum is a constraint for online surveys. This is not as big of a factor for IDIs. This flexibility in the total number of questions can provide an opportunity to obtain a deeper understanding of your audience’s perspective.
  • A higher response rate.Persistence in scheduling the interview and dealing with potential respondents individually contributes to a higher response rate for IDIs when compared to online surveys. This high response rate will allow for a more accurate forecast of the anticipated number of respondents, and how long it will take to complete the data collection.

What are the drawbacks?

  • Requires a trained and experienced interviewer.The benefits of conducting IDIs hinge on the experience of the interviewer. An experienced interviewer will know when to probe for more detail, recall answers earlier in the interview that might be applicable to questions further down the line, and take copious and legible notes to refer to when passing the interviews along for data processing and coding. All of these skills are requirements to optimize the benefits of conducting IDIs.
  • Time and cost.Hiring an experienced interviewer to conduct the interviews has many positive benefits, but it can be an expensive investment. Also, scheduling interviews and the length it takes to complete each interview can be time-consuming. Make sure you know when conducting an interview is appropriate, and when other data collection methods are a more suitable alternative.
  • Limited sample sizes.Because of the time and costs associated with IDIs, there are sample size limitations you must consider when making the decision between IDIs and online surveys. Depending on your budget and the size of the overall population you are sampling, an IDI may or may not be the right fit.

Which Method Should You Use?

The data collection methods you will need to utilize when conducting primary research on your firm’s brand are highly circumstantial and depends on the population you are looking to examine.

For example, if the population is smaller, highly targeted, and needs to meet specific criteria, then IDIs are likely going to be the best route in capturing a sample of that population.

On the other hand, an online survey would be more suitable if you want to sample a larger population. This might include your total client base, or the perspectives of your firm’s employees.

It’s important to get a sense of how internal staff views the firm’s brand. This will lay the groundwork for uncovering gaps in perception between your internal staff and clients, prospects, and referral sources.

It’s not uncommon for clients to view one aspect of a firm favorably, while it is not on the radar of client-facing staff. Connecting these dots will unify your brand message and highlight what clients truly value in working with your firm.

An Integrated Approach

These two data collection instruments aren’t mutually exclusive. Having a hybrid combination of these two can also be effective. Pairing IDIs of external perspectives (client, prospects, lost prospects) with an online survey of your internal population (employees, senior management, key stakeholders) will yield valuable, actionable results.

The results of such research aid in crafting effective positioning and messaging for your firm’s brand, and a deeper understanding of what perception gaps lie between your internal and external audiences.

It is important to keep in mind how decisions made early on in the research process can have a profound impact on the results and ultimately your firm’s brand strategy.

Think of research like the foundation of a house. If poorly constructed, your house may only be sturdy for a short while. If done properly, it can last much, much longer.