Natalie Patel and Carlos Lopez met while studying statistics together at Northeastern University in Boston. After graduation Patel had accepted a position with the largest independent marketing research firm in the United States, and Lopez went to work for Progressive Insurance outside Cleveland as an actuary. At their tenth class reunion in 2003 they met again. Each was somewhat unhappy in their current job, and both wanted to return to the Boston area to live. A casual conversation turned to something more serious as they discussed leaving their jobs to start a marketing research survey consultancy in the Boston area.
Survey Masters was founded as a partnership early in 2004. The business plan Natalie and Carlos had written called for the new company to offer specialized surveys to companies that did not have internal marketing research staffs. Through hard work and some good luck in the strong economies of 2005 and 2006, the company had grown to employ ten professionals including the partners by the end of 2006. Revenues were approaching $3 million and income for 2006 was $600,000. Loans taken to fund the early days of operations had all been repaid. The company focused on conducting surveys of consumers of existing and new products and services sold by manufacturers, distributors, and consultants. Data was collected and analyzed to provide information about demand, pricing, design, distribution channels, and delivery systems. A typical project ended with a report prepared for and delivered to the client who had contracted for the work with Survey Masters. In 2006, the company had completed 120 projects. An income statement in rounded numbers for 2006 is shown in Exhibit 1.
The Marketing Research Survey Process
Survey Masters typically used a three-phase process in designing and conducting surveys for clients.
Survey proposal and design
Clients requested services or Survey Masters identified
potential clients through expected need for customer preferences or information. Proposals and survey design were perfected in conferences with prospective clients by company teams that traveled to the client’s location to study needs and the information sought by the prospective client. Data collection The survey instrument, developed during and following the design process, consisted of questions about the product or service was administered to customers or purchasing agents. Telephone surveys were common, but in person visits were also used. Much of the data Professor William J. Bruns prepared this case.
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Analysis and report preparation
Data were analyzed using a variety of statistical and analytical techniques, and a final report was prepared and presented to the client that had contracted for the survey. Some surveys were small projects done quickly, but a larger project might require several weeks to design, collect information, and prepare the final analysis and report.
Managing Survey Masters
Carlos Lopez was the first to raise questions about the future directions for the company. In the early days Survey Masters had been taking on any and all projects that they could find. But now that 2006 had gone as well as it had, he raised with Natalie the question of whether they should begin to be more selective or more directive in the kinds and size of the projects that the company should undertake. Although they had kept careful records of each project from the beginning, they really did not know which projects were most profitable. The records assigned salaries and data collection costs to each project by the phase and kind of work that was done. As a first step in their evaluation, Patel and Lopez met with their accountant, Linda Evans, and raised with her the question about whether large projects or small projects were likely to be more profitable for Survey Masters in the future.
Within hours Evans sent the partners two summaries of her estimates of the profitability of each type of project (see Exhibit 2). The cover memo that she had attached described the basis for her analyses. It read in part: I listed all of the projects by project revenue from the largest to the smallest. Without a clear criterion for separating large from small projects, I first used project salaries as the basis for defining the two categories. Our total project salaries for 120 projects in 2006 were $800,000. Half of that amount was spent on what I first called large projects (of which there were 20), and the other half went into the 100 smaller projects. I used salaries as the basis for dividing the $1,400,000 in overhead expenses. This analysis led to a conclusion that of the $600,000 in estimated income for 2006, $200,000 was generated from the largest 20 projects, and $400,000 was generated from the smallest 100 projects. The results of this analysis are shown in Panel A of Exhibit 2.
This was a little hard for me to believe, so I did a second analysis, shown in Panel B. For the second analysis I looked at the largest 60 projects and the smallest 60 projects ranked by project revenue. This points to a conclusion that the larger and smaller projects are equally profitable, which seems more plausible than the results in Panel A.
But I have a nagging suspicion that neither of these analyses actually presents the information you need to set a direction for Survey Masters in the future. The smaller projects require many more trips (shorter in time and fewer people), more days of data collection, and more pages of analysis and report than the larger projects. I have summarized these data in Exhibit 3, an activity analysis taken from our records.
I have to be away for a few days to care for my mother, who is ill, and I have not had time to complete an analysis based on the activities related to larger and smaller projects. I will do so immediately on my return, but you may want to do such analysis yourselves so that you can proceed to think about whether you want to continue to take all projects or focus on larger or smaller projects in the future I will call you immediately when I return to discuss your thoughts and to help with finishing any analyses that you may have done. Please send me copies of your analyses by email, and I will try to react to them even though I must be out of town.
Natalie and Carlos decided they could work with Linda’s information and agreed to start the next day in the conference room and see if the data would help them figure out the direction that they should take their future business.
Comment on the analyses prepared by Linda Evans in Exhibit 2. Why do smaller projects appear to be more or at least equally profitable as larger projects?
Use the information in Exhibit 3 on overhead spending and activities to prepare analyses of the profitability of larger (20 projects) and smaller (100 projects) projects undertaken by Survey Masters in 2006. What are your conclusions about the relationship between project size and project profitability?
Should Survey Masters continue to take all projects offered to the company? Why or why not? On which size of project should they focus their sales efforts? Should they refuse to take on larger or smaller projects in the future? What should be their strategy in selecting future projects to undertake with clients?
Suppose that Survey Masters decides to only take on larger client projects, but not enlarge its professional staff (i.e. maintain the level of project salaries at $800,000). Prepare a projection of income for 2007 for the strategy that you proposed in question 3 above.