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April 7, 2016

3 Skills Needed for Customer Insight

Summary:

Generating (and acting on) customer insight requires skills in prioritization, in getting buy-in and in presenting results.

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While working in Amsterdam, I was reminded how insight analysts and leaders can shine brightly in very different contexts.

In the Netherlands, a mixture of training and facilitation was helping an events business. What struck me was the similarity of the challenges faced by their insight teams to the challenges I see in the U.K.

The more I work with insight leaders across sectors and geographies, the more I see how much they benefit from highly transferable skills. Here are three that are relevant to very different businesses and locations:

Prioritization

I’ve yet to work with a company where this isn’t a challenge, at least to some extent. As more and more business decisions require considering the customer, it’s not surprising that demand for data, analysis and research continues to rise. Most insight teams are struggling to meet the demand of both regular reporting (“business-as-usual”) tasks and the range of questions or projects coming in from business leaders. There have been many attempts to solve this struggle, including “projectizing” all requests (which tends to come across as a bureaucratic solution to reduce demand for information) and periodic planning sessions (using Impact/Ease Matrix or similar tools). In today’s fast-changing businesses, I’ve found that local prioritization within “the bucket method” works best.

What I mean by the “bucket method” is the identification of the silos (mainly for decision-making) that are most powerful in your business. This often follows your organizational design, but not always. Is your business primarily structured by channel, product, segment or some other division of profit and loss accounts? Each silo should be allocated a “bucket” with a notionally allocated amount of insight resource, which is based on an appropriate combination of profit potential, strategic fit and proven demand (plus acted-on results) Regular meetings should be held between the insight leader and the most senior person possible within that silo. Where possible, the insight leader should meet with the relevant director.

The bucket principle relates to the idea that, when something is full, it’s full. So, in reviewing progress and any future requirements with the relevant director, you challenge him to make local prioritization calls. Going back to the bucket metaphor, adding more requires removing something else—unless the bucket wasn’t already full. Due to human nature, I haven’t seen the bucket principle work company-wide or group-wide. However, it can work very well in the local fiefdoms that exist in most businesses. In fact, it can support a feeling that the insight team is close to the business unit and is in the trenches with them to help achieve their commercial challenges.

Buy-In

When trying to diagnose why past insight work has stalled or why progress isn’t being made, stakeholders often identify an early stage in the “project.” The nine-step model used by Laughlin Consultancy has a step (prior to starting the technical work) called “buy-in.” It takes a clear plan or design for the work needed and sends it back to the sponsoring stakeholder to ensure it will meet the requirements. Often, this practice is missed by insight teams. Even mature customer insight teams may have mastered asking questions and getting to the root of the real business need behind a brief, but they then just capture that requirement in the brief. Too few interpret that need and provide a clear description of what will be delivered.

There are two aspects of returning to your sponsor to achieve buy-in that can be powerful. First is the emotional experience of the business leader (or multiple stakeholders, if needed) feeling more involved in the work to be done. As Alexander Hamilton famously said, “Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike.” It’s so important in the apparently rational world of generating insight to remember the importance of emotions and relationships within your business. Paying stakeholders the compliment of sharing the planned work with them ensures the intended deliverable will meet their needs and is something that often helps.

The other benefit of becoming skilled at this buy-in stage is learning to manage expectations and identify communication requirements. With regard to expectations, you should set realistic timescales (which, first, requires effective planning and design), along with openly sharing any risks or issues so that they don’t come as a surprise. Communication—and asking how much a sponsor wants to be kept in the loop—can make a real difference to keeping your sponsor happy. Some sponsors will be happy with radio silence until a task is complete or a decision is needed (they value not being disturbed). Others will lose confidence in your work unless they hear regular progress updates. It’s best not to confuse one with the other.

Communication

Training customer insight analysts in softer skills often results in a significant portion of the course focusing on the presentation of findings. This isn’t surprising, because, in many ways, that’s the only tangible product insight teams can point to, prior to driving decisions, actions and business results. Too frequently, I hear stories of frustrated insight teams that believe the business doesn’t listen to them, or I hear from business leaders that their insight team doesn’t produce any real insights.

Coaching, or just listening to others express such frustrations, regularly reveals that too many analytics and research presentations take the form of long, boring PowerPoints, which are more focused on showing the amount of work that’s been done than presenting clear insights. While it’s understandable that an analyst who has worked for weeks preparing data, analyzing and generating insights wants her effort rewarded, a better form of recognition is having the sponsor act on your recommendations. Often, that’s more likely to occur based on a short summary that spares readers much of the detail.

Data visualizationstorytelling and summarizing are all skills necessary to master on the road to effective communication. Most communication training will also stress the importance of being clear, concrete, considerate, courteous, etc. Many tabloids have mastered these skills. Love them or hate them, tabloid headline writers are masters of hierarchies of communication. Well-crafted, short, eye-catching headings are followed by single-sentence summaries, single-paragraph summaries and then short words, paragraphs and other line breaks to present the text in bite-sized chunks.

Transferable skills

Insight analysts and leaders who master such crafts as prioritization, buy-in and communication could probably succeed in almost any industry and in many different countries. Many directors will attest to the fact that sideways moves helped their careers. A CV demonstrating the ability to master roles in very different contexts is often an indication of readiness for a senior general management role.

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About the Author

Paul Laughlin is the founder of Laughlin Consultancy, which helps companies generate sustainable value from their customer insight. This includes growing their bottom line, improving customer retention and demonstrating to regulators that they treat customers fairly.

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