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Sipping Coffee and Moving Mountains: How Four People Are Collaborating with Their Consumers to Change Their Businesses

No slides. No data. Not even a brief video clip or memorable mantra. And yet the 30 minutes spent in the Clients’ Café by four Promise/Communispace clients sharing their challenges and successes in transforming insight to action at the recent ESOMAR 3D Conference in Boston was one of the meeting highlights. Sandwiched between numerous lively and inspirational sessions on how to generate big insights, and on how to classify consumers and predict their behavior, these veterans focused on how to move beyond tossing ah-ha’s “over the wall” and actually have an impact on their businesses.

The panel represented an eclectic range of organizations, from a franchise-driven, highly decentralized company like Enterprise Holdings (parent company of Enterprise, Alamo and National car rental agencies), to the highly centralized airline giant, British Airways; from a publicly funded state agency, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MdDOT), to Meredith, the leading media and marketing company serving American women (featuring multiple well-known brands – including Better Homes and Gardens, Parents and Ladies’ Home Journal). Their needs and strategies differed, yet all had some valuable lessons to offer.

“I don’t need to worry about driving sales,” observed Karla Rains of the MnDOT. “We’ve already got the taxpayers’ money, and it’s not like they can just start buying roads and bridges from some other state. No, for me the biggest need is to actually help citizens and my agency behave more like consumers and brand, to help taxpayers make their needs and preferences known, and to help the state be responsive and win their emotional loyalty.” It’s been a long trek – until 14 years ago, there was nobody in her role – but Karla has won a seat at the Transportation Commissioner’s table as the voice of the citizen. She attributes much of her success to clear focus and perseverance, but says it’s also been crucial to close the loop with citizens, particularly in how the state explains its use of tax dollars. “We use their words to humanize our messaging,” she explains. “For example, through our community we learned that saying ‘50% of pavement is old, 40% of bridges are old’ is language that resonates. We’re learning how to help engineers understand the real, human impact of their decisions, and to enable citizens to see themselves in what we are saying, and do.”

Meredith’s Britta Cleveland could relate. Inspired and informed by the LHJ’s community of readers, she has led the charge in re-inventing and re-invigorating a print publication in an era when ink on paper is supposedly obsolete. “The old model was for editors to decide on the mix of articles, and tap into readers now and then to make sure editors were getting it right.” But thanks to what they’ve learned about content that is authentic and relatable, the magazine’s leadership has flipped that power relationship on its head. “Now the readers generate the content ideas based on their own interests and evolving needs, and the editorial function is to hear, refine and present them.” Synthesis and storytelling skills are essential to generating action among her internal clients. “We internally market what we learn from our readers. We’ve been learning to find that middle ground between voluminous data – which can be paralyzing – and simply relying on our gut to tell us what to do.”

And to that, Carol Jones could relate. For years, in the absence of any significant customer input or data, Enterprise Holdings had operated entirely on gut instinct. Compounding this challenge, the company was entirely decentralized, with corporate really playing just a support function to the field. “There’s an entrepreneurial spirit at Enterprise,” Carol observed. “Branches are highly autonomous and empowered, which is great, but it means that they made their own decisions – marketing included – based on their own point of view. So for me, as an outsider who didn’t grow up in the business, it was crucial to form strong personal relationships as the first step.”

For Carol, the challenge was less about activating insights in a large, hidebound organization than about demonstrating the value of consumer insights in a sprawling, decentralized one. “We don’t take on a project unless we’re confident that what we learn is going to be actionable,” she explained. That’s why she’s focused on projects that have big implications, such as using her community to strengthen relationships with car dealers, or diagnosing why European growth had been so flat. “Some of our biggest impact has been when we’ve presented research that goes against conventional wisdom or makes them sit up and say, ‘huh!’ ” She’s elevated the role of research by moving beyond its function as validation, recognizing the power of surprise.

While the “small and scrappy” paradigm works well at Enterprise, when your organization is a highly regulated and costly endeavor like British Airways, it’s not easy to turn on a dime. That’s why Eulin Goh devotes so much energy to engaging the full range of stakeholders – consumers, sales, marketing, engineering and corporate affairs. “Once they’ve gotten out from behind the glass and interacted directly with consumers, they become internal evangelists.” But the occasional encounter isn’t enough; she has to keep them engaged through a series of incremental insights and innovations.

“You can’t just say, ‘Let’s try changing the seating configuration,’ ” she explained, “as that one-off experiment can cost millions of dollars.” That’s why some of the insights and innovative ideas generated by a Future of Flying project that she led were starting to wither on the vine. So Eulin implemented an Insight Activation Workshop that reunited those internal stakeholders involved in the initial ideation work, and not only got them to check in, but enabled them to leave the session with small, achievable action items that would keep the initiative alive. She is also actively exploring how to marry big data regarding flyer behavior to the ethnographic work that can help BA understand and address the whys behind the whats, grounding her recommendations in both numbers and the voice of the customer.

Different organizations, different needs and different strategies came to life during that half-hour. But what all these powerhouse women had in common was an insistence that they and their teams be grounded in business and marketing strategy, not just in data analysis. And as mediums channeling consumer voices within their organizations, they are gaining new respect. As Britta observed, “You can’t hide from what your customers are saying anymore. Social media has put a stop to that. You can’t ignore them.”

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