The Right Insight

What makes a successful customer insights leader? Here’s a guide to the challenges and strategies of some of the best in the business.

Robert Howie

Managing Director, Growth at C Space

Robert Howie is Managing Director of growth at C Space, and previously led the Retail team. He was a co-founder of Palladium Group, a management consultancy, and the Chief Commercial Officer for the Balanced Scorecard, the world’s leading framework for strategy execution. He served for several years as the only western judge for the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Business Awards, named for the eponymous prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai. Rob is an active blue water sailor and has received numerous awards for his leadership in ocean sustainability.

Believe it or not, CEOs and other senior leaders who believe in the importance of customer centricity, customer empathy, and customer engagement don’t do this purely to be altruistic. They do it because they believe that they can get to better results faster, de-risk decision making, and drive business outcomes. In fact, 60% of CEOs believe customer influence shouldn’t be confined to product and service development or customer experience but should extend to developing business strategy.

Today, customer behavior is accelerating faster than businesses can respond. So the role of customer insights as the headlights of a business has never been more important. Understanding human behavior – and building customer-company relationships that create value for both – drives growth. Yet only 14% of marketeers say that customer centricity is a hallmark of their companies, and only 20% of companies use insight as a source of competitive advantage. We see this as an unmet opportunity for insights leaders with the skills to connect insights with actions, build relationships with stakeholders, create change and make better business decisions.

So what makes a successful insights leader? From over 20 years of working with and listening to the world’s most important brands we’ve observed a few striking commonalities between the most successful companies.

We’ve found that the head of insights plays a very different role than that of the team who reports to them. About 75% percent of their time is spent building relationships with key business leaders. They’re also building relationships within the wider ecosystem in which they operate, such as manufacturers, franchisees, external business partners, and consulting and technology providers.

The insights chief for one of America’s largest retailers told us: “The most important part of my job is keeping my insights team engaged, driven, and innovative, while building close relationships with my business partners and thinking of new and different ways to bring the voice of the customer into the building.”

The most effective insights leaders run teams that are able to understand and explain customer behavior, as it relates to potential revenue. While the head of insights oversees the insights function, their own focus is on desired business outcomes, typically expressed as some aspect of growth (e.g., new customer acquisition and retention, customer lifetime value, sales, share of wallet).

Actionable insights are table stakes in their performance. Their incentive compensation is aligned with that of business leaders. They leverage their own and their insight organizations’ expertise to proactively develop a keen sense of foresight and prediction, have an enterprise-wide perspective, and are a trusted source of competitive advantage to their business partners. This is not an easy thing to do, even for successful insights chiefs.

As the head of insights at a Fortune 100 insurance company told us, “The single biggest challenge we have is getting and keeping everyone aligned on the importance, value, and place in the growth process that insights brings. In a recent training event, we asked product development, ‘You wouldn’t launch a new product without talking with us, would you?’ There was nervous laughter. In a sales-oriented culture like ours we sometimes craft a new product, get it to market, and then are shocked and amazed when customers don’t like it.”

In most companies the head of insights reports to the head of marketing or strategy, which are, by definition, other staff functions. Regardless of where the position reports, to earn a seat at the proverbial table, successful insights chiefs need to produce results, not just insights.

They need to bridge their managerial role overseeing the insights function and the crafts that it includes, while at the same time building a coalition, a collaboration with stakeholders that matter, and leveraging external and internal sources that build muscle to see around corners. Their futures, and that of the companies they serve, depend upon it.

The 5 Customer Insight Challenges:

Finding Human Truths
Many companies have a data-driven culture, with ever-growing transactional data and technology to analyze it. But despite that, many companies do not know where to focus their talent, time, or treasure (money) to optimize results in order to change what the business does. The best insights leaders put a human face to the numbers so that decision-makers fully understand their choices.

Managing Change
Change is constant, and the pace and intensity keep increasing. We’ve seen a number of large-scale transformation projects; some successful, some not. Those that don’t are often disruptive reorganizations which change reporting relationships but don’t address underlying customer strategy and employee engagement issues. The best insights leaders and their companies are agile, build change dynamically into the way they work, and organize around customers rather than functions.

Achieving Buy-in
Internal obstacles (for example culture, people, polity, structure) usually outweigh external ones. The best insights leaders find ways to link directly to the business strategy, navigate competing agendas, participate in the right conversations, and create alignment – often by bringing the customer voice to life in compelling ways that change behaviors, influence beliefs, and drive action.

Evolving Team Capabilities
Insights teams often execute their craft and technical competencies (research, analyses, tracking) well but are often reactive and not proactive. Successful insight leaders need to build their teams’ consulting muscle – including business knowledge, careful listening, and hypothesis building – successfully interrogate the why behind the ‘ask,’ and look for white space opportunities.

Achieving Impact
A great insight without action is no better than a hallucination. Insights have a third-order effect; the work of engaging customers with products, services, and experiences they want still needs to get done. Successful insights chiefs and their teams make the explicit connection between the insights and the impact. And it must be measured in a way that’s relevant and believable.

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