May 1, 2018

The art of being an influential customer insight professional

In this blog, we start by looking at why the ability to influence and persuade a stakeholder audience is now one of the most important customer insight skillsets. We will then look at some of the barriers and resistances that some customer insight professionals face in being influential. Finally, we provide some guidance on how to become an influential customer insight professional who can turn insights into action.

Why the ability to influence is now such a critical skill

There are three fundamental reasons why, over the last few years, the ability of customer insight professionals to influence stakeholders has become such an important customer insight skill.

A sea change in expectations of the customer insight function

In the early days, market researchers were encouraged to focus solely on the data and to be conservative with any interpretation of what this meant in terms of the action stakeholders should take. In fact, early versions of Codes of Conduct for market research included specific rules about separating out what was the hard evidence from any type of interpretation. But today, there is greater recognition of insight consultants themselves being admissible evidence – an individual’s own knowledge and experience can now legitimately sit alongside the primary evidence. In addition, we have a culture that expects insight professionals to have a point of view and be engaged and involved in project outcomes. We are reminded by Seth Godin that: If you are remaining neutral, not only are you not adding value, but effectively you are taking value away.

The growing pressure to measure the Return on Investment (ROI) of customer insight

There is growing pressure on customer insight professionals is to be more influential and persuasive, stemming from the fact that increasingly they need to demonstrate their effectiveness – justify their existence – with some form of ROI measurement. This pressure has prompted customer insight teams to better showcase their role as influencers within the decision-making team. It is this development that has put into sharp relief the need to step up to the plate and make a discernible difference. This requires, not just professional research skills, but the ability to influence and persuade stakeholders and make a decisive contribution to the decision-making and implementation process.

The arrival of the so-called Post Truth era

The arrival of the Post Truth era has been a game changer in terms of how people see experts and the role of evidence in decision-making. The Post Truth era has brought a scenario where people can win the day with emotive based arguments that are only tenuously connected to the facts. The Post Truth era has meant that insight professionals now need to be more influential than ever in getting out their message in a noisy and complicated communications environment. In this environment, it becomes even more important for customer insight professionals to demonstrate their ability to influence outcomes around compelling stories – arguments – that are firmly based in the evidence. They need to differentiate between a powerful evidence-based argument and some of the sideshows and confusion the Post Truth era is creating.

The barriers and resistances to being influential as a customer insight professional

On the face of it, it would seem that customer insight professionals would welcome developing the art of being more influential and persuasive. And, indeed many have mastered this art. However, there are still some customer insight professionals who exhibit resistance to fully embracing the skill of being influential and persuasive in everything they do. There seem to be six key reasons for this.

There has been a paradigm shift in what is now required of customer insight professionals

It is difficult for some customer insight professionals to see how being influential and persuasive is compatible with their role of objectively collecting and analysing the evidence. These insight professionals tend to see the skills of being influential and persuasive as sitting in one corner or category, with the skills of the insight professional armed with the evidence, arguments and facts sitting in another category. So, in being asked to be influential, some customer insight professionals see this as them being asked to step outside of their comfort zone – their natural professional habitat – and do something that is completely different from their traditional role.

It is difficult to accept that inspiration is often more important than perspiration

A lot of customer insight professionals find comfort in Edison’s idea that success (in his case in being innovative) is ‘99% perspiration and 1% inspiration‘. This assertation is comforting because it seems to validate the importance of putting in all the hard yards of effort in undertaking a complex research project. It is a catchphrase that can be seen by some to reinforce the power of the research process, rather than celebrate the value of the end outcome. But in actual fact, the harsh reality is that the success of a research-based project pivots around that 1% moment of inspiration – the light bulb moment when the stakeholders get the story and see the potential of the insight.

All the hours put into undertaking the research ultimately hinge on what happens in that golden hour at the end of the project when the customer insight professional needs to influence and persuade stakeholders about the power of their insight and how this can be applied to solve a business question. It is a tough lesson to learn that everything hinges on great storytelling – the inspirational way everything is pulled together to engage stakeholders.

Thus, influencing and persuading may only make up 1% of all the effort that goes into the project, but it is the biggest single determinant of success. This can be hard for many customer insight professionals to acknowledge. It can be difficult to accept that influence and persuasion skills are more important than all the hours put into doing the research project. This can be a difficult pill to swallow.

A nervousness about being in the decision-making spotlight

Another resistance to being influential and persuasive centres on the fact that many customer insight professionals are not used to being in the limelight. In selecting an insight or research-based career many are making a statement that tend to enjoy process and methodology – the ‘workings’ – rather than being centre stage. Specifically, for some there can be a fear of failure. What happens if – in your high profile influential and persuasive role – you steer stakeholders in a direction that ends up being wrong – and it is you that has to bear the consequences.

But interestingly, at the other end of the psychological spectrum, for some there can be a fear of success. What happens if all this influencing and persuading is so successful that you, as the customer insight professional, are now always at the cutting edge of decision-making – constantly in demand as the go-to trusted advisor. For some, all this is dramatically different from what they signed up for -they see it as above their pay-grade. They would prefer to stay in a support research role – their natural comfort zone. They do not like the limelight that comes with being a successful and sought-after decision guru.

Given their underlying fear of failure and/or success, certain insight professionals will subconsciously begin to self-sabotage their influence and persuasion skills in order to remain in their comfort zone.

The challenge of being influential in the new data landscape

Another barrier to stepping up to the plate and being an influential customer insight professional is knowing how to apply the insight craft in the new data landscape. In the past, as might be expected, customer insight professionals were comfortable with data analysis. This centred on the ability to master one or two big data-sets and be the expert around what these one or two sources of data meant. But today it is more about sensemaking: the ability to synthesise and draw together multiple sources of (often imperfect) evidence into a compelling storyline, and then having the confidence to fashion an engaging story with which to influence and persuade stakeholders.

Thus today, to be influential and persuasive, you need to be totally on top of how to bring all the complex sources of evidence together for stakeholders and decision-makers, and outline a recommended course of action. This is not easy because there are few frameworks around that help customer insight professionals to be confident in building a holistic story around multiple sources of evidence. Considerable skill, professionalism, confidence and expertise is needed to create a storyline that is credible and authoritative – the platform from which insight professionals can then be influential.

Concerns about the concept of ‘storytelling’ in the insight context

Another barrier to being influential is that some insight professionals are unsettled by the challenge of finding the balance between the pressure to be a great storyteller and the need to stay faithful to the evidence and report on the data. They worry about  the call for them to be a creative storyteller. They are concerned that this could entice them into become rather superficial and trivial. It could lead to stories that are not underpinned by the right amount of rigour and depth. In short, they are struggling to find the sweet spot in providing powerful, but still evidence-based, stories.

In sum, although customer insight professionals have, by and large, bought into the idea of the need to be storytellers, many still lack the skill and confidence in how to create a powerful storyline firmly grounded in solid evidence.

The belief that influence and persuasion are not skills that can be taught

Another barrier to being influential and persuasive – knowing how to deal with different complex stakeholder scenarios and getting over your message – is the belief that this cannot be taught. The view is that some are good influencers, and some are not, and that this is a higher order creative skill that cannot be easily acquired.

Against the above backdrop of some insight professionals finding it difficult to be influential and persuasive in the new customer insight paradigm, let’s now look at what can be done to boost the customer insight professional’s influencing skills.

Building a framework for helping insight professionals become more influential in getting over their (evidence-based) insight message

DVL Smith has designed a programme entitled Insights into Action: How to be an Influential Customer Insight Professional. This programme is aimed at transforming insight professionals’ ability to make sense of insight data, tell their insight story and make their insights count. The programme addresses the different barriers and resistances reviewed above. The programme is divided into three modules which are briefly summarised below.

Sensemaking: how to find the insight story from a wide range of data insight sources

In this part of the programme there are Seven Analysis Frames that help insight professionals develop a holistic approach to presenting the evidence relevant to the business problem. It is a framework for sensemaking – the drawing together of multiple sources of evidence into an integrated narrative that stakeholders find easy to understand.

Business storyteller: how to construct compelling insight narratives – knowing which story structures will be most effective in getting over your message

In this part of the programme we apply Seven Story Tools aimed at giving insight professionals the structures and techniques they need to construct an evidence-based story – one that is grounded in the facts, but still has the ability to engage and influence a stakeholder audience.

Making your insights count

In the final part of the programme there are Seven Strategies that will help customer insight professionals deal with complex stakeholder and decision-making scenarios. This provides various techniques to boost insight professionals’ ability to get key insights actioned. It provides a toolkit that allows them to act with integrity in influencing and persuading stakeholders around a winning business solution firmly grounded in the evidence.

If you want to know more

The programme is designed in a highly practical way with accessible bite-sized units of information, supported by lots of practical examples, and the opportunity, via coaching, for participants to apply the learning to their own projects.

If you would like to know more about the programme, please contact David Smith at [email protected] and look out for our upcoming podcast: Insights into Action: How to be an Influential Customer Insight Professional – transform your ability to make sense of insight data, tell your insight story and make your insights count.


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