Reporting: the client’s and supplier’s struggles

My life has been currently taken up by reporting. I’m living it and breathing it, and so it’s on my mind a lot. A few things that have been running through my mind: the difference between reporting and storytelling; finding the sweet spot between just updating a tracker report and looking for the story being told this time from the data; and ultimately, the struggle between clients and suppliers when it comes to reporting.

The struggle between client and supplier

It’s an ages-old refrain from clients that they want more value from their suppliers. It’s an ages-old refrain from suppliers that they need more time to actually delve into the data so that they can provide the insights and value that the clients want. It brings to mind another ages-old refrain: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time.

Having been on both the client side of the equation and on the supplier side of the equation, I think there’s a disconnect happening between the two that causes the refrains. From the client side: we don’t always see into the belly of the beast, so to speak. We don’t realize that the request for a data cut means the supplier needs to ask their data team for another cut, and that requires putting together translating the client request into exact specifications for the data team (who is likely not all that familiar with all the variables from the study). Then it requires spot-checking, which might entail pulling the data again, just to be sure the data team got it right.

Sometimes, it even means looking for the variable the client is referring to, and trying to figure out what filters need to be applied at which levels, with which variables, to arrive at the exact data pull requested. Other times, it means trying to figure out which of a handful of applicable variables we’re referring to, so that the supplier is pulling the right information. Of course, that typically entails a question from the supplier back to the client asking, “Okay, I found the following variables: A, Y, Z, and F. They’re all pretty similar, so which one exactly are you wanting to use for this particular data pull?” And then when we as clients as for the data to be trended, the supplier is expected to go find the exact trending (for new requests, at least), and hope that the same variables were used and same questions asked the same way for the trending to be accurate. Honestly, as clients, we just expect that we can throw something out there to the supplier, and the supplier will catch it and run with it to the end-zone without any interference whatsoever.

As clients, we can also expect for trackers, that the same report that was used last wave can work this wave. But here’s the thing: we seem to forget how long it took for the supplier to generate that report last wave. Somehow, we seem to figure that the report will be pretty easy to throw together since it was done last wave, so why can’t the supplier now also add in data cuts for the 10 new questions and 20 new secondary-data variables we supplied them, find the added story, and include it all in the same timeframe?

The struggle between the supplier and the client

As suppliers, we can get too wrapped up in just meeting deliverable dates that we forget or just fail to give ourselves and our teams enough time in a project schedule to actively address new questions from the client. In an effort to keep the belly of the beast hidden, we don’t let our clients know that that “simple request” is actually going to take a few hours of coordination, all with urgency behind it, while still needing to address the other requests being sent over. We figure that the client isn’t going to have that many changes to the report this time, because they never have changes to the report. And then, when the client wants changes, we don’t explain the fact that the changes being requested need to be prioritized against the list of other items already on the docket to be delivered.

Worse yet, sometimes, we as suppliers don’t ask the questions about which variables should be used, instead just making educated guesses, which sometimes are right, sometimes end up resulting in frustration from the client who wonders why the supplier didn’t think to ask for clarification before going forward with the work. We also don’t ask our clients to tell us about the ongoing business needs while a survey is being fielded, and work out reporting approaches while nobody’s hair is on fire trying to meet reporting deadlines. We don’t take the time to bring up the new questions, the new data, and what secondary sources the client might want to include in analysis. We don’t always sit with the client as they are reviewing the report template so that we can get a good understanding and be consultants with them on what data cuts should even be pulled, which can result in a disappointed client who learns a little too late that sample sizes were too small to show usable information, or that trending really can’t happen as desired because the data simply isn’t equivalent from previous waves to be able to do the trending well.

A proposed solution

The one theme through all this is a lack of communication between the client and the supplier. Both sides of the equation may need to step back and be a bit more thoughtful about the project. This includes having conversations about what cuts of data will be needed during reporting season and the supplier not waiting until the last minute to get the data specifications in to the data team. It includes the supplier sitting with the client to review the report templates and both being flexible enough to realize that there needs to be a bit of time on both sides to investigate some of the questions being asked instead of just populating a report. It includes the client being aware of the fact that sometimes, a seemingly simple request can end up being more complicated than expected – and the supplier giving the client enough insight into the complications so the client doesn’t end up wondering what’s taking so long.

At least, that’s my thought today as I’m working on populating a report with my team, trying to balance the desire to including new data with updating last wave’s report with this wave’s data. For those of you on either the supplier side or the client side (or even better, those of you who have been on both sides), what do you think can help when it comes to needing to have the time to actually dive into the data and do some investigation while also needing to meet the reporting deadlines?

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