Myths Vs. Realities: The Client-Analyst Relationship... It Takes Two to Tango

This is the latest in a series of posts on myths vs. realities in the world of private intelligence and geopolitical risk. If you're new to the site, you may want to start with the Glossary. To see previous posts in this series, simply scroll down on this page. 

Based on some of your feedback to the last post, I want to address some of the myths surrounding the client-analyst relationship. It’s often taken for granted that a client has a direct line to an analyst, and can reach them at any time for an answer to a complex question. This is very rarely the case. The client-analyst relationship is often far less smooth, yet as I’ve mentioned previously, a client posing a question to an analyst is what sets the private intel cycle in motion. The nature of the client-analyst relationship can help predict just how smoothly the cycle will unfold.

Once an analyst receives the question, they employ a specific methodology to provide the answer. An answer can only be as good as the question, so it takes two to tango. Much of the time, bad questions lead to bad answers, and tense relationships. Unfortunately, in most cases, clients aren’t leading the tango, and analysts have to try to step in to direct, often stepping on toes as they try to navigate the tense line between needing more information to respond to a client’s needs while not wanting to nag. There are several reasons why the client-analyst relationship is often dysfunctional:  

Clients don’t know how to ask questions

In general, the more robust and detailed the question, the more complex the methodology, and the richer the answer. The more challenging a request, the more sources an analyst will use, the more experts they’ll reach out to, and the more detailed an answer they’ll produce. Conversely, the more general or simple the question, the weaker the methodology, and the more unsatisfying the answer. An analyst won’t work as hard to answer a basic question, especially when he or she already suspects the answer, and clients rarely ask how the answer is derived. There no question here that a client will receive an answer that’s only as good as the question he or she asked. Unfortunately, many clients don’t know how to ask the right question, or how to pose their request in the best way to ensure that they’ll receive a useful answer. 

Which question is likely to lead to a useful answer: What’s happening in Yemen? Or… How will the ongoing political upheaval and complex security environment in Yemen affect port operations in Aden? An analyst can answer the first question with a paragraph, but that paragraph’s worth of information is very unlikely to help a client determine whether his operations are threatened or what steps might be prudential in avoiding disruptions or mitigating threats to staff and cargo. The second, question, however, is more likely to lead to a robust answer, including a general overview of the situation in Yemen, as well as specific information that will inform a client’s decisions regarding how to protect operations, build a relationship with a new governing authority, safeguard personnel and institute protocols designed to minimize losses.  But to ask the right question, a client needs to know what information they need, which is driven by the purpose the intelligence will serve. That brings us to... 

Clients don’t always want thorough analysis- just confirmation

In some cases, clients simply aren’t interested in getting thorough answers, because they’ve already made up their minds and they simply want their decisions validated (I touched on this in the post on bias). These clients are typically the type who see geopolitical risk as having little value, and therefore don’t integrate geopolitical risk analysis into their organic decision making process. To them, it’s an afterthought at best, and a compliance necessity at worst. In such cases, clients simply want to check a box that says they sought another opinion, largely for the purposes of mitigating liability. In other cases, a client doesn't understand the many purposes of intelligence or geopolitical risk analysis, and asks basic questions because that's all they believe such a firm can answer.

Similarly, if the analyst isn't sure about the purpose her analysis will serve, she will err on the side of caution. If an analyst feels that a question is asked simply to obtain confirmation, there is less of an impetus to introduce information that could criticize a client’s decision, since an answer that upsets the client may lead them to end the relationship with the intel/risk firm. This is detrimental to both the client, who may be making a very big - and avoidable - mistake, and the analyst, who violates tenets of intellectual honesty to tell the client what they want to hear.

Sales/Marketing staffs as a third wheel

Salespeople, who seek out clients and connect them with analysts, drive most new business. Few analysts go out and establish new business relationships. So analysts, who are best positioned to speak to their capabilities and skills, aren’t the ones speaking to clients about their needs. Instead, a salesperson may pitch a client exploring overseas expansion on a product that will help them decide which new market to enter. Unfortunately, sales people are not well versed in intelligence, geopolitics or even business operations in a particular sector, and don’t know exactly what information they need to ask for to pass to the analyst. Similarly, the sales people also don’t know whether an analyst is fluent in the language of the country to which the client is considering an expansion, or whether the analyst has a good local source network there to help them gather the information needed to answer the client’s question. As the intermediary, who often turns into an awkward third wheel, the sales person typically turns the communications between client and analyst into a game of telephone. Much of the meaning gets lost, and the intermediary gets in the way of a productive relationship, as a sales person seeks to wrap up billable projects, rather than provide maximum value to the client.

Analysts often need to seek clarification, and if they fear bothering a salesperson to do so, or don’t trust a salesperson to get the right information, they’ve more likely to complete a project without the necessary information, resulting in a product that’s all but useless. A bad experience can lead a client to stop using the firm. On the other hand, a knowledgeable salesperson (who knows how to introduce the client to the analyst and then let them develop a relationship) can do wonders, leading to a productive relationship between an analyst. Once they’ve established a rapport with a client, an analyst can better anticipate needs, save their clients money and become an invaluable part of the decision making process.

If clients are serious about deriving value from intelligence and geopolitical risk analysis, then they should understand that they are buying access to methodology and a relationship with an analyst, not an answer to a question in the form of a PDF. By being an equal partner in the tango, they can ensure that they know the right questions to ask, understand the analyst's strengths/weaknesses, and have a good idea of the methodology used to obtain information.

Now that we’ve covered the major myths, check back next Tuesday for the first in a series of posts with ideas for fixing some of these problems, improving the industry and boosting its value to clients.