This article is part of a series by Katie Harris, principal at Zebra Connections (if you missed the other parts, start here). 

So let’s assume you’ve been following my series in Marketingmag, have fallen in love with qualitative research, have decided to undertake a qualitative research project, and are now trying to decide on a qualitative research supplier.

What should you look for? Good question! And you’ve come to the right place: that’s what this post is all about.

The essentials

There are a few basic, but essential things you should look for when deciding on engaging a qualitative research consultant. Broadly speaking, look for experience, a good understanding of the role of research, and a passion for sample:


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: make sure only senior consultants work on your qualitative research projects.

Good qualitative research consultants have lots of experience: real world, real client, real respondent and real marketing experience. Experience means they can provide significant efficiencies in the research process and much greater efficacy in extracting insights.

Specific industry experience can be helpful, but isn’t always necessary. While it can provide focus more quickly, there’s also great value in having a fresh pair of eyes take a look at your market and issues.


A good research consultant understands that they’re not the star of the show. They get that there’s more to the picture than the research per se. They get that it’s actually about the client’s bottom line.


Sample is everything in qualitative research. Good research consultants are very fussy, if not passionate about sample definition and sample recruitment.

The finer points

Above I’ve briefly listed some of the essentials. Let’s now look at some of the finer points of distinction that will help you choose a good supplier. Four, to be precise;

They understand quantitative research

Yes, you read that right. Good qualitative research consultants understand quantitative research.
I don’t mean they necessarily understand it at a regression analysis or chi-square level (feeling dizzy now). I mean that they truly understand its value as part of the problem solving mix.


Good research consultants have to be good communicators.

What’s the point of discovering earth shattering insights if those insights then just sit lifeless – all squished up in a rabble of page-cluttering bullet points? Yawn.
Good research consultants take pains to communicate their research findings in a way that gives them a useful and productive life.


I’m strongly opposed to using frameworks based on psychological theories that have little empirical evidence to support them (Maslow anyone? Or just pick any personality theory).
Many of these theories have zero credibility; they give both research and psychology a bad name. In my opinion, anyone using them is a practicing quack.

They’re proprietary free

I’m not a great fan of black box techniques in qualitative market research either. “Proprietary” frameworks, tools and techniques make my toes curl.

My main objection (to be sure, I have many) is that they force the shape of the research input and output in a cookie cutter style.

They get in the way of seeing and they get in the way of thinking. And seeing and thinking anew is what good qualitative research is really all about.

The crunch

In choosing a qualitative research consultant, make sure you have the essentials covered; look for experience, a good understanding of the role of research, and a passion for sample.

Beyond these essentials, look for consultants with a good understanding of quantitative research and an ability to bring the research findings to life in an engaging way. Finally, stay clear of consultants who want to sell you questionable frameworks; go with the good, original thinking every time!

In my next post, qualitative research and social media.