January 14, 2019

The transformation of the customer insight industry: what this means for your team

In this post, we start by looking at the key drivers behind the transformation of the customer insight industry. We then look at what this means for the way customer insight professionals operate in this new environment. We conclude by outlining three core skillsets that customer insight professionals need to cultivate to make a success of the transformation that is taking place in the insight industry.

Why the customer insight industry has been turned upside down in the last few years

There are three interconnected features of what has changed out of all recognition in the customer insight industry – both from the client and agency side – in such a comparatively short space of time.

Access to a powerful new data ecosystem

Today there is data everywhere. Customer insights no longer result just from bespoke ad hoc customer qualitative and quantitative research. There is social media listening data. There is data derived from studying digital and website traffic. There is data from simply observing behaviour without any interview taking place (today there is data that tells us what is going on in people’s refrigerators without ever touching the side of an interview). And of course, there is a mountain of customer transaction data. So, we are data rich. Furthermore, we can deploy exciting new research methodologies that could not have been envisaged a few years ago. This allows decisions to be quickly made based on low cost experimentation. But the sting in the tail with all this data is that all this creates an expectation that our insights will now be richer than ever, and will be arriving at an ever faster rate.

A faster go-to-market process

Today we hear stories of major global FMCG supplies being able to create, from inception to launch, a new brand in under 40 days! This is a process that, in the past, has taken months – even years. There are no longer the conventional stage gates to go through in bringing a product to market. And today there is a massive emphasis on ever-more focussed levels of personalisation in the offers made to customers.  The emphasis today is on applying lean, agile thinking – testing the critical assumptions first, making fast decisions, progressing and then adjusting en route.

The focus of insight is now on future-proofing the organisation – not just risk reduction

In the past, the internal client insight department would often be positioned essentially around the idea of insuring against failure. It would have been seen as a cost centre aimed at averting disaster. But this has all changed. Increasingly, it is expected that an insight function’s primary route is to be able to help the organisation quickly identify, and seize, in a timely way, opportunities to create growth.

Implications of the new customer insight paradigm for the capabilities needed by customer insight professionals

It is possible to identify three fundamental enhancements to the current customer insight professional capability set that are needed in order to thrive in the new customer insight paradigm.

The need to operate as added value insight creators

Expectations are high that customer insight professionals will unearth those nuggets of insight that will drive growth – that they will constantly be adding value. And with all the data available and the richness of today’s techniques there is no excuse for customer insight professionals not stepping up their game. There is increased pressure to improve their ability to identify powerful customer insights that can change customer behaviour. This means that today’s insight professionals need to be curious and know how to ask the right questions. They need to understand the fundamental underlying factors that are driving what is changing customer’s thinking and behaviour. Achieving this, and operating in today’s new customer insight paradigm, requires not only the ability to make sense of today’s data, but also a mindset willing to accept that insight professionals are admissible evidence. They need to put part of themselves into the insight creation process. Here, we need to remember that insights are not simply found in the data: they are created in a dialogue around the data, between the insight professional and key stakeholders.

Being able to answer not only the ‘so what?’, but also, the ‘now what?’ question

Insight professionals, given the new focus on future proofing organisations, need to be able to see the strategic implications of their insights. They need to help organisations identify game changing events that are coming down the line and help their organisation quickly adapt to change by providing strategic foresights that help future-proof their business model.

The need for customer insight professionals to be truly consultative – not just taking the market research order, but proactively driving the insight agenda

We know that customer insight professionals can be irritated with the debate about whether they should be more consultative in their approach or not. And we need to accept that insight professionals do not necessarily have the skills to be the complete management consultant. It is reasonable to stay focused on our strengths – our ability to drive customer centric growth by generating and intelligently interpreting the customer and market evidence. However, we believe insight professionals would benefit from reframing their role. They need to operate in a more consultative style way: position themselves in their dialogue with stakeholders in a way that will give them more authority. Insight professionals need to be more consultative in the fundamental relationship they initially set up with their internal clients. They need to avoid what we might dub the downward spiral of mutual disappointment! What do we mean by this?

Well, many insight projects start with an internal stakeholder asking a specific, but not necessarily the most appropriate question, and for the insight team to then produce an answer. Often it turns out that this answer does not live up to the expectations of the stakeholders because it was addressing the wrong problem. So, stakeholders are disappointed. But meanwhile the customer insight professional is also disappointed: all the hard work they have put in to setting up the study to answer this issue seems to have been ignored. This all ends up with the internal client teams being trapped in a downward spiral of lowering expectations and disappointment – insight projects keep getting commissioned but are rarely delivering that wow business outcome.

This is where operating in a more grown-up, adult consultative, rather than order-taking market research mode, comes into play. If at the start of the project the customer insight professional had worked harder to define the true business problem, there would be a better outcome by fully understanding the wider business context, then the chances are, there would have been a better, richer identification, and framing, of the strategic choices open to the organisation in tackling this issue. The way out of feeling you are not being valued as an insight professional is to get your consultative stance right. So, instead of simply leaping to what is likely to be a naïve yes/no type recommendation, by working in a consultative mode you will go a long way to avoiding the downward spiral of mutual disappointment syndrome. Specifically, this consultative stance pivots around framing the decision options open for each business scenario, then:

  • Identifying the evidence around opportunities
  • Looking at the evidence surrounding possible risks
  • Reviewing the likelihood of success of this option
  • Reviewing the strategic consequences of this approach
  • Then, only at this point in the project, offering a recommendation

In sum, this consultative positioning will mean that you will now provide your recommendation based on a full understanding of the business content: you will have tackled the key complexities related to the business question. It will mean that you will avoid being seen as naïve. Stakeholders will be impressed by the informed strategic and business-like contribution made by the insight professional.

Providing a transformation in customer insight skills: towards being a High-Performance Customer Insight Professional who can operate in a consultative way

We conclude this piece by looking at three fundamental skillsets where customer insight professionals will need to transform their capabilities to operate as a high performer in the new customer insight era. These are all covered in DVL Smith’s High-Performance Customer Insight Professional Programme

Operating as a Sensemaker: away from just being a data analyst towards being able to make sense of multiple sources of evidence

We now expect customer insight professionals to go beyond simply taking the order for a project, following a project process and then delivering some data. Today, following our call for a more consultative approach, the expectation is that the insight professional will: frame the future strategic choices facing an organisation; review opportunities; identify risks; explain consequences and outline the likely success of different options. This ability to join up the dots, make sense of complexity and identify strategic foresights requires skills that go beyond traditional data analysis. What is required falls into the category of sensemaking. At DVL Smith, as part of our High-Performance Customer Insight Professional Programme, we have designed a programme with a number of step-by-step actions that give customer insight professionals the ability to: identify the true business question; the skill to work with multiple data sets; and the techniques to identify the key storyline and use this evidence to answer complex business questions.  Our Seven Analysis Frames System spells out the Sensemaker skillset in a step-by-step way.

Being a powerful Storyteller: being able to build the customer insight narrative and get over the power of your insight message

The DVL Smith Programme also equips insight professionals with the skills of creating compelling insight narratives – it shows you how to be a great storyteller. We look at ensuring the customer insight message cuts through and engages stakeholders. We show how to get lean-in from various types of audience in different types of communication scenarios. We do this with our Seven Story Tools System – a proven process for building storytelling capabilities.

Being an Influencer: knowing how to bring about the successful implementation of insight driven decisions

The final capability set included in the DVL Smith High-Performance Customer Insight Professional Programme centres on taking personal responsibility for making sure powerful and relevant insights are actioned within organisations. We introduce a range of consultative skills that can be deployed with stakeholders to tackle any resistances to actioning powerful insight driven change. We look at how to work with different stakeholder archetypes – we focus on how to get engagement and alignment around powerful insights. We look at how to overcome any conflict between stakeholders. The programme concludes with summarising the key traits of the High Performance Customer Insight Professional: specifically we provide a Personal Effectiveness Blueprint

If you would like more information about the DVL Smith High Performance Customer Insight Professional Programme – with its Sensemaker, Story Builder and Influencer modules – please contact [email protected]



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