Creating a Customer-Insight Strategy

While strategies supposedly begin with customers' desires, they mostly don't. A real customer-insight strategy needs to begin with three steps.

Too few companies have a customer strategy, let alone a customer-insight (CI) strategy. At least, that's my experience. In fact, many business strategies that I've seen, which seek to pepper their presentation with customer language, are really channel strategies or product strategies that reflect the silos in that business. This is unfortunate, as most CEOs would acknowledge the critical importance of having their business understand, acquire, satisfy and retain customers (ideally, converting them into advocates). But perhaps the lack of customer insight in strategies reflects that may boardrooms have not had an empowered and articulate customer leader (or, better still, CI leader) to identify the need and drive the change. As a small contribution to fill this gap, let me share a few reflections on what I have found helpful to consider when creating a customer-insight strategy. At its simplest, strategy is just a series of decisions about "what you are going to do." This mindset can help avoid too much theorizing with pretty diagrams and ensure your strategy leads to an implementation plan that can be executved. As a simple framework, it can help to consider three overlapping sets that you need to consider for a CI strategy: Strategic Alignment: Although a CI strategy can inform and guide business and marketing strategies (from an understanding of consumers, your target market, their perceptions, unmet needs and channel usage), normally those exist prior to creating a CI strategy. So, a first priority is to ensure alignment. How can customer insight help achieve the goals of the business strategy? What does the business need to understand better to deliver the marketing strategy? How can the work that aligns best with top strategic priorities be prioritized for the CI function. Is there other work that the CI function is doing that can be stopped or reduced given its low alignment with strategic priorities? All these elements should be thought through to decide what is included within CI strategy. Your business and marketing strategy have likely been shaped, at least in early stages by PEST (political, economic, socio-cultural and technological), SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and and threats) and other tools to analyze internal and external factors. Similarly, in summarizing what the CI strategy should be (aligned to business and marketing strategies) it is useful to see what use of CI is working for others businesses (here, lessons can often by learned outside your sector) and summarize what CI work has been most effective previously for you (on the basis of commercial return and improved customer feedback). Both of these approaches should help identify priority work areas where CI can make a difference and help deliver the business and marketing strategies. Operational Effectiveness: This is all about organization and processes. How does the CI function operate? Once again, it is useful to both look internally, capturing what has really happened already, and externally (this time for best practice models). Given the relative immaturity of CI in academic terms and lack of common language or focus from "marketing experts,"' it can be hard to find the textbook answer for the customer insight best practice model. However, I have found a few of the benchmarking models used by technology research companies and marketing professional bodies useful and have produced my own (on the basis of 13 years experience in creating and leading such functions). However you come by a best practice model with which you are comfortable, your next step should be the familiar approach for gap analysis. Summarize your current practice, compare and contrast with the best-practice model and then prioritize the gaps you find. Prioritization here needs to be informed by what you will be using your CI function to achieve (as summarized in the strategic alignment section). This review and gap analysis should consider not just the processes for getting different items of work delivered but also the organizational structure of the team. Despite some leaders claiming the structure does not matter if you have a unifying vision and the right attitude, all my experience teaches me that it does. Human beings are inherently tribal, and the quality of CI output is strongly affected by inter-disciplinary cooperation. People Leadership: That mention of departmental structure brings us neatly onto focusing on the people in your CI team(s). Too often, strategy documents, even if they manage to translate the conceptual into the practical, fail to then consider the people side of change. To deliver the priorities identified in your strategic alignment review requires not just appropriate structures and effective processes but also the right people and culture. A good place to start can be a review of the current people in roles, comparing them with the ideal roles and skills required to deliver the work needed. Such a review should seek to consider people's generic competencies and wider skills than they may be asked to use in current roles, as well as critically assess their attitude and fit with the team. But beyond just the right individuals, success will depend on those people coming together to form effective teams, and that is more about culture than what is written down. I like to think of culture as "what happens 'round here when people aren't being watched." Various approaches have been tried to impose or encourage the culture wanted in a team, but I've found little works as well as empowering the people themselves to create the culture in which they want to work. An effective people leader is needed, who can communicate a clear vision and make decisions, but the leader will often be most successful when working with suitably skilled individuals to together define the team culture they want and how that can be encouraged. Truly listening to the wisdom of those doing the work, recognizing and rewarding the behavior sought and giving time to developing people and fixing environmental irritants will all encourage this. None of this is easy. But being in a position to articulate to your team and your boss and the board a coherent customer-insight strategy (which explains how it enables business objectives, operates effectively and gets the best out of the people in the function) can be powerful.

Paul Laughlin

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Paul Laughlin

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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