How to Choose an Information Broker

by Susan M. Detwiler

I'm not often asked how to choose an information broker, and that disturbs me. While information brokers have been around for some time, recent media attention has added glamour to the otherwise staid field. Add to the picture the number of people who have been laid off in recent economic downturns. Throw in advances in online data retrieval that have really lowered the barriers to entry. All of a sudden, a field that has been primarily the bailiwick of independent-minded librarians has become a glamorous, "in" profession.

Information brokers now come in all sizes, specialties, price ranges and experience levels. Most are honest; a few are not. Most are good; a few are not. Most give you good value for your money; again, a few do not.

So how do you choose? The simplest response would be to list for you 20 questions and the "right" answer to each of them. But that would be doing both you and the broker a disservice, because rarely is there a single right answer, and you have to look for the subtext. Just as you wouldn't choose an accountant or an attorney unless the chemistry is right, you shouldn't choose an information specialist unless you're comfortable with the person. And, just as with attorneys and accountants, there are times you need special skills.

When interviewing a prospective broker, ask about education, experience and business practices; ask yourself whether you need a specialist or a generalist; and listen carefully to the questions the broker asks you. What follows are a few of the areas you might want to consider and explore with prospective brokers.

Education

What is the educational background of your prospective broker? Education includes both formal schooling and post-education training in information retrieval. Many brokers have Masters in Library Science (MLS) degrees. Others may have law, science or business degrees. Still others are journalists or from the liberal arts. While an MLS often gives a broker an advantage in the traditional reference arts, don't overlook the formal training in research which goes into many other degree programs. Either research-oriented degree programs or education in a subject specialty may take precedence over formal research training. A business librarian may not have the right skills when you need a pharmaceutical search - a Ph.D. in chemistry might be a more appropriate broker to perform the job.

Ask if the broker has taken any courses or attended any seminars lately. Continuing education indicates that the broker is intent on maintaining state-of-the-art skills.

Online Access

Ask about the online vendors accessed by the broker. The most common database vendors are Dialog, CDP, Datastar, Lexis, Dow Jones and Newsnet. More specialized vendors also exist. Brokers may not have access to all of these, but they should at least know of them. A blank stare is a good indication that you might have to look elsewhere. Reliance on CompuServe or Knowledge Index is a negative - the service is primarily for non-professionals, and most vendors through CompuServe don't permit their databases to be used in a brokering capacity. Ask also if the broker ever uses non-online sources. Very often the information you need will not be in a database, and good information brokers will acknowledge that they can't always get what you need online.

Beware of brokers who say they can get anything you need; some information simply does not exist. And some information is so deeply buried that the cost of pulling it up exceeds its value.

Fees and Business Practices

An information broker is in business. That means it's going to cost you money to get the information you need. Some brokers bill hourly, others bill on a project basis. Some include expenses; most bill "plus expenses." You may be asked for funds upfront or for payment upon receipt or on 30-day terms. Many information professionals have minimum fees. Ask about these practices, and ask for an estimate of costs. All of these are valid approaches to billing. However, you should ask these questions early, and be comfortable with the response.

If a broker cannot give you a range of costs, or will not work in a "not-to-exceed" capacity, this doesn't necessarily mean a poor broker. However, you might want to probe further.

Business practices also include the form the information will take when you receive it. Do you want electronic format? Faxed results? Overnight express? Do you want the raw data as it is retrieved? Or do you want the information analyzed and put into a formal report. Make sure the broker can meet your needs.

Specialists

Do you need to ask about subject specialty? Take a good look at what prompted this search for an information broker in the first place. Does the project require special knowledge of the industry? An engineer in telecommunications connectors doesn't necessarily need a telecommunications information broker to get corporate names and addresses; the after dinner speaker doesn't need a specialist for an Albert Einstein quote. And an industry specialist may not even be needed for a business divestiture, if all you're looking for are financials on potential buyers. Of course, there's also no need to rule out the specialist for the non-technical questions.

Consider hiring a specialist when the subject is technical, if jargon is the primary mode of communication or if industry context is important to the results. For example, patent searches are technical - you should probably have a specialist. Medicine is highly specialized, and the wrong answers might prove serious. Again, a specialist is probably warranted. Consider a specialist when a number of different specialized sources need to be consulted. If you're looking for an understanding of a particular market, then you should consider a specialist in that field.

Subcontracting

One of the more attractive aspects of working with an independent information professional is the comfortable feeling of knowing who you're working with. After a while, the broker becomes part of the team. But what happens when the broker doesn't have the necessary expertise or can't meet your deadline?

In smaller firms, when information professionals can't meet your needs, they can subcontract the work or offer you a referral. In this case, a broker who is active in the field and has a stable of associates to call on is a better choice than one who is a loner. This is similar to working with a family practitioner: one with a good referral network is less likely to try to treat every case that comes along.

Subcontract arrangements are frequent in the industry and offer many benefits. Many brokers provide their subcontractors with guidelines for format, and they review all the work before it goes to their clients. This can give you the best of both worlds - you maintain contact with someone who knows your needs and preferences, and you get the expertise of a specialist that can handle your current request.

Other times, the broker may refer you directly to a subject specialist or someone who is currently less busy. While you now have to work with a new person, you might consider it an advantage not to have an interim layer.

In larger information research firms, referrals are usually handled internally. The group may have various experts on staff or on call. As research firms get larger, you are further removed from the person actually doing the search. This is not necessarily a negative, as many of the best researchers are most effective when an intermediary translates clients' needs into research instructions.

The Broker's Questions

Finally, a good information broker will not just take your question and run with it. The broker should be concerned with several aspects of the project and probe you for as much information about the project as possible. This is the reference interview, that is, the initial conversation about the project and is possibly the most important indicator of a good broker.

"Can you tell me what this information will be used for?" A good broker will be concerned with the ultimate use of the information. This is not being nosy - it's good business sense. Many times the context of the question will affect the direction of the search.

"How else might this information be referenced?" That is, what are the key words and how do the trade journals or speakers in the field refer to the subject. For example, referring to a drug, you might be asked if you know the class of drug, manufacturers or trade names it might go under.

"Where have you already tried?" "What information do you already have?" This keeps the broker from reinventing the wheel and might possibly save you money. The information may also give the broker clues on the best way to approach the search.

"How far back do we need to go?" You may know that the most pertinent information will be no more than three years old. There's no sense in looking further back.

"Do you want English only, or will other languages be acceptable?" Why pay for documents you can't read?

"Do you want me to rely on just online sources, or do you want us to pick up the telephone and continue the research that way?" An information broker with access to several research skills might offer them to you in this way.

"What's your time frame?" When do you need the results?

In short, if the information broker doesn't engage you in a conversation about the project, then you should probably consider looking elsewhere.

It's Up to You

Where does this leave you, the prospective client? You now have several more responsibilities than when we first started. You have to perform your own reference interview with each broker you contact. So ask questions, and, most of all, listen. Listen to their responses, listen to their questions. Ask yourself if you're comfortable with them. There is no single right answer to any of the questions, but if you don't ask, you'll never hear any answers.


Susan M. Detwiler is president of S. M. Detwiler & Associates, Inc., Ft. Wayne, Indiana, a full-service information brokerage serving the healthcare and medical industries. She is editor of The Detwiler Directory of Medical Market Sources, which has been cited as one of the Top 100 sources of marketing information by American Demographics magazine. Ms. Detwiler has more than 18 years of professional research experience.