What Should You Look for in a CI Vendor?

As a CI Manager, you likely already have been, or probably will be, tasked with hiring outside vendors to provide some portion of data collection, analysis, and reporting. Using an outside vendor frees you up to be more effective by focusing on serving the needs of your internal stakeholders – to understand their needs, deliver the right intelligence in the right format to meet them, and follow through and make sure that the intelligence you produce is being used effectively to play an active role in the decision-making process.

Selecting the right vendor and managing the relationship are huge parts of the CI Manager’s responsibilities, and if it goes well, you stand to gain tremendously by being able to cost-effectively deliver the right intelligence to your internal customers. But if it doesn’t go well, you will be held responsible. How well the vendor relationship goes can make or break any CI Manager’s success in the position.

But how do you select the best vendor? How do you pick one that will be your partner and make you shine to your bosses and internal stakeholders? What should you be looking for, and what questions should you be asking to make sure you hire the firm that will be your partner in success?

To help you in evaluating CI vendors, here’s a short list of areas you should be evaluating, with some suggested questions for each:

Communication style

  • What kind of reporting will your internal stakeholders want to see? Can the vendor provide that, or will you have to do a lot of work to get the reports right?
  • Will the vendor have a good cultural fit with your company’s expectations for communications and reporting?
  • Does the vendor provide draft deliverables and allow you to send back feedback and request revisions?
  • How does the vendor communicate throughout the project? Do they provide regular update calls and/or progress tracking?
  • How will the vendor respond if the focus of the research needs to change mid-course?
  • Who will you be communicating with – the analysts who are closest to the actual collecting and analyzing of data, or an account manager? Can you talk directly with the research staff about your project?

Expertise

  • You know your company and industry best, and there is a certain amount of subject matter knowledge required of the vendor to make a project successful. But do your primary intelligence objectives require niche or technical expertise, or is good background knowledge of your industry sufficient while it is more important that the vendor offers expertise in the CI skills necessary to uncover difficult-to-find intelligence?
  • Does your project involve multiple industries? If so, what kind of cross-industry experience does the vendor provide? Can they give you a project team that includes staff who work in other relevant industries and know how to navigate them?

Primary vs. secondary research

  • Does the vendor specialize in primary or secondary research? The skill sets and resources required for these two modes of research are quite different. While essentially all firms will have some capacity in secondary research, it’s the primary research that delivers the most valuable – and difficult-to-find – information. If you only need scanning of news and public information sources, many vendors will be able to do that. But only experienced analysts will be able to conduct high-level interviews and give you really good primary findings. Does the vendor offer you highly trained CI professionals to deliver primary intelligence?

Vendor research staff

  • Who does the research? Does the vendor have full-time, in-house staff, or do they use off-site contractors? If they use outside contractors, what forms of quality control do they use? Why don’t they have dedicated staff available for your project?
  • If the vendor uses in-house staff, do they work on established teams? Do they carry out effective project management practices? Does the in-house staff offer sufficient breadth of skills and expertise to meet your specific intelligence needs?

Samples of relevant work

  • Will the vendor provide samples of work related to your project? Do the samples show the kind of reporting you will need? Do they show in-depth research and analysis rather than just reporting of publicly available information?

This list is just a start for things to think about when evaluating working with CI vendors. We hope that these questions will help you partner with the right provider the next time you are tasked with outsourcing some of your data collection and/or analysis.