About the Author
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Super Searchers Go to the Source
The Interviewing and Hands-On Information Strategies of Top Primary Researchersâ"Online, on the Phone, and in Person
By Risa Sacks, Reva Basch
Information Today, Inc.Copyright © 2001 Risa Sacks
All rights reserved.
Small Firm, Primary Focus
Described as "one of the industry's foremost telephone researchers," Marjorie Desgrosseilliers, president and founder of AccuSearch Information Services, Inc., is an experienced investigative writer/researcher specializing in difficult-to-find information. She writes and speaks on the topic of telephone research and other non-online ("nonline") information-gathering techniques. AccuSearch is a virtual company based in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, with offices in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a network of researchers and subject experts across the country and around the world.
Marjorie, why don't you begin by telling me a little bit about your background and how you came to end up with AccuSearch.
I was a kid who started out asking a lot of questions. My mother said my first word was "why." I was born asking questions. And the very first present I ever got was a book. So, ever since then, I've been interested in reading and information and wanting to know why. I always thought I knew everything anyway. When I was in high school, I volunteered at the library, and I liked it so much that I ended up working at the library in college. I had no background or research experience at all; I didn't have a clue how to do research.
They were looking for volunteers for a reference librarian, so I ended up getting trained. I became the reference librarian while I was a student at Ambassador College in Pasadena, California. Part of my job was clipping articles on different topics. I came across articles by Marydee Ojala, Mary Ellen Bates, and Reva Basch. I started seeing that there was actually a viable business behind this research thing; I could get paid to do things I liked.
When I left college, I went to work for the Plain Truth magazine. I was the sole librarian there for six years. Part of the reason why I started my business was a combination of wanting to do something that really appealed to my independent, entrepreneurial side, and wanting to move from Southern California. I took a leave of absence from my job for a month, and started my business as AccuSearch Information Services, Inc.
At this point I only take projects that I really like to take, and I farm out the rest. I have taken my company from a sole proprietorship, where I was the only person doing all the research, all the marketing, all the you-know-what, to where I have a stable of about eight researchers who work for me regularly.
Were your degrees in library science, or some other research area?
No, I have no degree in research whatsoever. I have a bachelor of arts in theology. I actually started to do an MLIS (master's in library and information science). I took the five core classes, and I did very well in them, but I decided that just wasn't where I wanted to be. I found it too restrictive for some reason, and I thought, well, I know I can do this, because I had a lot of practical experience.
Tell me a bit about what your clients and your projects are like at AccuSearch, though that may be a moving target.
It is a moving target. When I first started doing research, I really didn't know what I would be, what I would fit into. People always told me, "you gotta find a niche, you gotta find a niche." I kind of rebelled against that, because I didn't want to get stuck. They would say, "find yourself a niche, right now, and get into it." But you know, until you have a little experience in this kind of business, you don't know where you're going to fit. I think it's important to do a lot of different things until you find something you like.
I kind of fell into doing telephone research, which is really funny, because I hate talking on the phone. I started out initially as a subcontractor for a larger information brokerage firm. The phone research part was looked upon as garbage collection. People hated to do it. But it's like "what would we do without sanitation engineers?" I was always the kind of person who thought, "nobody wants to do it, so I'll do it." I found that I had a knack for it, and I did very well. I wish I could say it was something I planned, but I just fell into it.
When I first started, seventy to a hundred percent of my business was subcontracting for other researchers. Now subcontracting's about thirty percent. Our projects range all over the map. Our other clients include consultants, public relations firms, and Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. We do market research, competitive and business research, and intelligence. Projects can go anywhere from the $400-600 range to ones lasting several months and costing thousands of dollars. On the short end, we have a "Get Smart" package that gives a client an overview of a particular company or industry. An example of a long complex project was one dealing with data disaster preparedness, looking at programs that various states and countries had in a number of major areas such as transportation and medical information.
What kinds of offline research do you do aside from telephone research? Do you do any face-to-face interviewing or digging in public records, or is it mostly telephone?
It's mostly telephone. I've not had a research project where I've had to go face-to-face with somebody. I'd much rather do it on the phone. If I'm trying to get information out of people, it depends on how sensitive the project is, but if it's CI (competitive intelligence), I don't want to talk to anybody face-to-face.
That's interesting. What differences do you find between interviewing somebody face-to-face and interviewing someone on the phone?
In person there's so much body language going on. If I were having a difficult time trying to get someone to talk to me, and it was face-to-face, I probably would be more inclined to turn tail and run than I would be on the phone. It's like, I can't see them, I don't know who they are, they don't know who I am. It's totally anonymous on the phone; it's a whole different ball of wax. However, after saying that, I do feel that if I had to go face-to-face with someone, I could do it and probably do it well.
So the anonymity of the telephone provides the freedom to do what works for you. Are your projects all phone research, or do you use a combination of research methods?
When I first started, it was all pretty much phone research. Then I started getting a lot of quick-and-dirty online research: "I have 300 bucks; get me what you can within this time and budget." I got very good at online research, developed strong online skills. I just don't market online as much as I do phone research, because I truly believe that primary research is where the real information is.
Sometimes projects are mainly or completely online. But now I'm finding that almost all of our phone projects involve an online element at some point, if only to give us some direction as to where to go.
In terms of your feeling that primary really is the gold, what do you think primary gives you that you just can't get online using the Net or commercial databases?
What primary gives me is depth. What we read in books or newspapers or journal articles or whatever is two-dimensional. With telephone research, you get that three-dimensional picture; you get feelings. Let's say you're trying to find out about a person's philosophies as far as business is concerned. When you're talking to someone, you can tell if they do not like person XYZ. Then you go digging around to find out whether it's that they don't like them personally, or that they don't like their business sense. There are so many nuances, if you know what you're looking for. You can feel the body language coming through the phone. Phone research is so important because it is the soft information that is not available in print.
How do you usually get your requests for projects? Do clients come to you because they know they want primary research, or do they just say, "we need this question answered" and you decide which part might be primary, which part might be secondary?
We have a couple of advertisements, like in The Librarian's Yellow Pages [81, see Appendix]. But most of our requests come through email and word of mouth. People call us and say, "So-and-so said that you do this kind of thing." I also follow up contacts with people that someone else has suggested might be able to use my services. When I get a project by word-of-mouth, the client has pretty much figured out that it's going to take some primary research. But most of my requests are just people looking for information.
When a request comes in, do you do a reference interview with the requestor to pin down what they need, as opposed to what they think they need or what they say they need?
Exactly. When somebody calls, the first thing I do is make sure they understand that it's a fee-for-service situation. Then the question I ask is not "What do you need?" but "What are you trying to accomplish?" and I make notes. Then I'll say, "As a company policy, especially for first-time clients, I'd like you to send me an email outlining in a couple of paragraphs what you've told me. This helps me make sure that I understand exactly what you want, and helps me put together an estimate." Our estimate is actually a contract that we have our clients sign. Our terms and conditions are on the back; they explain who we are, what we do, what we will not do. We say that we make a reasonable, good-faith effort to find them what they want.
If you're asked to estimate the cost of a project, how do you do that?
It just so happens that I wrote an article for Price Watcher  on that. I give an overall range based on an hourly rate, and that hourly rate depends on the type of work, the amount of analysis needed, and so on. I figure that, if a project involves calling ten companies, and you need to ask three or four questions at each one, and it looks like the same type of person should be able to answer all of them, that means talking to ten people, and I allow at the very least an hour per company. If it were three or four questions and ten companies, and it looked like I'd have to talk to three different people at each one, I would go to an hour and a half. I add up the hours and multiply by the hourly rate for that kind of project, and I add a percentage on top of that. I don't estimate phone costs; that's an additional expense.
One of the things about telephone projects is that they're more expensive, overall, than online projects, because of the time and effort involved. And I'm not afraid to say that to clients.
How long do your projects usually take, and what kind of turnaround time do you have?
It depends, sometimes, on the urgency. With telephone projects, especially if they want a good, thorough job, I ask for ten to fifteen business days; it typically takes anywhere between one and two weeks to get it done. In the summertime, it sometimes takes longer because so many people are on vacation. I usually ask for six to eight weeks and try to turn it around in four.
When you look at a project, are there flags that say, "hmm, primary research" or that indicate that you might use primary and secondary research synergistically, say online and telephone, to support each other?
There is no magical answer. Some of it's instinctual. There's no formula for when to do phone research as opposed to online research. I don't know why I think this is a phone research project, why I think that one is online. But what I do know is that I know.
Let's say somebody calls and says, "I would like information on a company; I'd like some of their financials, I'd like to know a bit about the industry." We have the "Get Smart" package that I mentioned, and I know right away I'm going to go online for that. Or they'll call and want to know what's been happening in the last year with this company. That's online, no question.
However, if they say, "I'd like to know what this company is thinking, what their market strategies or philosophies are," that is a two-fold research project. I would see what I could find online, and then I would augment that with telephone research.
As far as doing a total telephone research project is concerned, that might happen if I'm asked to update a report that I had done before, or that somebody else had done. Sometimes I have a gut feeling that we'll probably not find a whole lot online. That's true of anything that I know is an emerging field, especially new technical information, high-tech and telecommunications industries. For most of that, the first place I go is the phone. Actually, that's not true. The very first place I go is company Web sites.
Are there decision points, a sort of research triage where you say, "for this part, I'll go to the Net first, and then maybe a bit on the commercial databases, and then I'll go to the phones?" Can you think through your decision process for me, when you've got a brand-new project? Or is it by now just a gut reaction?
It's a gut thing. And it's hard. More and more, it depends on the question that someone is asking.
Often a client is looking for a new twist on an age-old question. For instance, they might know a company's market share, but they also want to know how they got there. They might say, "I've heard that XYZ company has a bit of a different investment philosophy. They used to do this and now they're taking their company to go do that. I need you to find out if that's true or not and, if so, why they are doing it." I know that, more than likely, I'm not going to find that kind of information online; my experience has been that I'm going to get the critical stuff on the phone.
One of the main reasons I go to the phone is when it looks like more touchy-feely information — how are they thinking, what are they feeling, what are the trends in this area of the industry. You can pick up some of that online, but the problem with online is that you are tied, you're restricted. Online tools put you at the mercy of what someone else has written and the way they've chosen to answer the questions.
For the real soft stuff, the innuendos, the feelings that people have, I use the phone. Because the excitement doesn't come through in an article — are they excited about it, are they worried about it? I know I haven't answered your question yet; it's a struggle. I've done it for so long now that I just know.
Do other factors come into that decision, like budget or turnaround time?
Yes. Budget is a big thing. What I'll do with a client when they have essentially no money is give them an estimate. I'll say, "Well, we can see what we can find online. It'll probably cost you between" — and I give them a range — this is just pulling numbers out of my hat — "three and five hundred dollars to do the online part. If we come up with nothing, I can give you an estimate for doing more work on the telephone." If I have a strong sense that it will more than likely end up being phone research, I tell them that up front.
More and more, though, I am running into people who are willing to spend the money, and they're not interested in just what's out there in print. They want to know what makes a company tick. They want to get to the heart of the matter.
Do you find any difference in your interaction with clients that you're doing primary research for, versus the ones that you're doing secondary research for?
I have a lot more contact with people that I do phone research for, because different directions emerge. Or somebody says something in a conversation that makes me think, "this seems to change the whole tenor of your question."
Sometimes clients ask me to find information based on their criteria, and I find that their criteria are not what the information is based on, but something completely different. One client told us that chemical companies were developing new products to deal with allergens, and wanted us to find out what those new products were. We found out that the companies weren't concentrating on developing products to deal with allergens, but were focusing on making whatever products they developed fall within the regulations set out by particular governing bodies like the National Institutes of Health , OSHA , and EPA .
As soon as I get any indication that we're dealing with completely different issues, I get back to the client and say, "Okay, this is what we're finding." Once you get to the point where you're saying, "Look, you're not going to like this, but this is really how it is," you know you've got a real working relationship going.
As long as we're talking about clients, have you found any major client misconceptions concerning primary research?
That it's cheap, and that it's fast. You can get it cheap, fast, or good. You can have two of the three, but you can't have all three. You can have it good, and you can have it next Wednesday. But you can't have it good, next Wednesday, and cheap. You have to educate your clients. The key to all this is to manage your client's expectations.
Excerpted from Super Searchers Go to the Source by Risa Sacks, Reva Basch. Copyright © 2001 Risa Sacks. Excerpted by permission of Information Today, Inc..
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Michael A. Sandman, Fuld & Company, Inc.,
Research Goes Primary,
Marjorie Desgrosseilliers Small Firm, Primary Focus,
Té Revesz Large International Research Company,
Robin Yarmovsky Renaissance Researcher, Corporate Setting,
Learning the Skills,
Jeanne Tessier Barone Teaching the Art and Skill of Interviewing,
John Nolan Elicitor Extraordinaire,
PI, CI, and Public Records,
Lynn Peterson Public Records "To the Ends of the Earth",
Alex Kramer PI, CI, Public Records,
Andrew Pollard U.K.-Based Competitor Intelligence,
Primary Goes to Press,
John Schwartz New York Times Reporter,
Joe Flower Researching the Future,
Wendy Grossman American Freelancer in London,
Dan Tynan Magazine Editor, Freelance Writer,
Appendix: Referenced Sites and Sources,
About the Author and Editor,