Tag Archives: laughlin consultancy

3 Skills Needed for Customer Insight

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.

Are Softer Skills for Analysts Neglected?

Are you neglecting the development of softer skills in your analysts? Based on conversations with customer insight leaders, including at the very pleasant DataIQ Talent Awards, it would seem you are. When I shared the experience of Laughlin Consultancy, that training for analysts in softer skills is our most popular service, these leaders were not surprised. But if there is such widespread support for the idea, why haven’t businesses invested in this training sooner?

People have suggested a number of theories:

  • Underinvestment in these teams or in training during lean times
  • Softer skills not valued by some geekier analysts or leaders
  • Skepticism from line managers (especially CMOs) as to what value such training would deliver
  • Just too busy!

All these are understandable challenges or excuses, and more than one resonates with me from my time creating and leading large customer insight teams. Perhaps there is another reason, as well. In my new line of work, I get to speak at industry conferences, read data/analytics/research publications and scan the plethora of blogs or social media comments on this topic. What becomes clear when consuming these is that the “buzz” or fashion is to focus on the technical. Ever since Google made “data scientist” the sexy job title for the decade, both suppliers and users have obsessed over technology and technical skills.

Following the comforting old maxim, “it’s what you do with it that counts,” I worry about this fetish with all things techie. As an Apple addict, I can empathize with the attraction of new shiny technology and beautiful design. However, I’m sure we’d all agree that commercial leaders should be focused on outcomes, not tools.

This recent fascination with “big data” or “predictive analytics” or “data scientists” is also worryingly reminiscent of what happened during the customer relationship management (CRM) bubble. When that term was in vogue, businesses were falling over each other to “do CRM,” which a number of large technology suppliers made sure equated with buying a CRM system. Not surprisingly, with hindsight, most of these CRM projects failed, and systems did not repay that hefty price tag.

Given that most of us are keen to avoid repeating mistakes, it’s a pleasure to report that more and more switched-on businesses are realizing that they can’t just hire technically competent graduates and get the insight their business needs.

So, what do I mean by softer skills? Maybe not precisely what you might come up with, but I hope the list below is familiar. Laughlin Consultancy’s most popular service in the first half of 2015 was the delivery of a “consultancy skills for analysts” training course that includes theses elements:

Have you invested in training like that for your analysts? What results have you seen?

Another way to think about this issue is, what distinguishes your top talent from those analysts who prove to be just so-so? My experience is that it’s capability in these softer skills. Over the years, I’ve met or employed hundreds of analysts, and while many may be a whiz at coding or have mastered model building in SAS, few are great communicators who really get what the business needs. Those who did master the skills I’ve outlined above went on to not just be effective consultants within their business; many are now leaders themselves.

Is that your experience, or would you identify other training needs for your team?

9-Step Model for Data Analysis

When training analysts how to deliver more value, two topics have proved the most popular.

One is training in Socratic questioning techniques, to get to the real business need.

But, as many analysts have “fallen into” this line of work, rather than making a conscious education and career choice, few have been trained in methodologies. With the exponential growth of insight analysts, marketing analysts and data scientists, the emphasis appears to be on just coding skills and software mastery. Where this is the case, too often analysis is an unplanned art, with unreliable timescales and too many “rabbit warrens” being explored. It is perhaps for this reason that the other most popular topic is a high-level structure for analysis.

I call this approach the 9-step model for analysis. It comprises the following steps:

1. Socratic Questioning: getting to real business need

2. Planning & Design: defining approach and gathering resources

3. Stakeholder Buy-In: getting agreement on what will be delivered

4. Data: ensuring the needed quality data and learning from it

5. Analysis: including exploratory data analysis and hypothesis testing

6. Insight Generation: converging evidence to get to deeper insights

7. Stakeholder Sign-Off: support for or refining recommendations

8. Storytelling & Visualization: capturing hearts and minds for action

9. Influencing for Action: ensuring appropriate action is taken

What’s your experience of improving the capability of your customer insight team? Have you focused on developing the skills outlined above or other areas? Please do share your tips, too.

6 Tips on Recruiting Analytical Talent

The well-trailed difficulties in recruiting data scientists or other analytical roles, followed by the equivalent challenge in retaining them long enough to recoup your investment, have been likened to “talent wars.”

There are hotspots around the UK, but it seems all areas to some extent share this experience. London is perhaps the most challenging place to retain your talent. In my own experience, it has been easier to recruit in South Wales and Bristol (the latter being particularly good for having a pool of analytical talent), while much harder in Bournemouth and Edinburgh, for example. Several factors can improve your odds, including how you advertise, whether or not you use an agency and especially how clearly you explain the role.

Here are six tips:

Role description

Providing clarity on the role and what you expect from candidates is harder than it sounds in this sector. So many terms that you might use (like “analysis,” “insight,” “intelligence,” “data,” “modeling,” “reports,” “presentation,” etc) are open to interpretation, and some very poorly skilled candidates use this language to describe what they can do. For this reason, I recommend avoiding technical jargon as much as possible (apart from specifying any exact software in which you require expertise). Seek to describe the role in terms of the outputs you require the person to be capable of delivering. For example, do you want a candidate who can produce analytical reports or someone who can influence marketing leaders and present information that is sufficiently persuasive to change strategy or guide design of a new campaign or product.

Advertising and Agencies

Advertising your role is another conundrum for the would-be hiring manager. Given the high fees charged by some recruitment agencies, for little visible effort, it’s not surprising to see the growth of companies investing in their own recruitment portals and greater use of LinkedIn by recruiting managers. The latter approach has the advantage, for well-connected professionals, of both tapping into their existing networks and approaching those who both understand the language they use and may be best placed to know analysts ready for a move. However, the novelty factor has now worn off, and with so many recruitment consultants also bombarding LinkedIn users it is harder and harder to get your message across.

I would certainly encourage use of your own company advertising (to tap into fans of your brand) and LinkedIn as a first step. However, despite all the charlatans in the industry, I have still seen real benefit from specialist agencies that genuinely know this market. Having recruited analysts for more than a decade now, I’ve found these informed specialist recruitment agencies few and far between and those I trust to be even rarer. However, among this rare breed, I am happy to recommend MBN recruitment. The firm always understood my brief and provided viable appropriate candidates as well as pragmatic advice on salary and approach to wooing the undecided.

Motivating and Retaining

As all insight leaders will be only too well aware, even though finding the right analytical talent in the first place is challenging, it can be even harder to keep them motivated, engaged and ultimately retain them long enough to see their potential realized and value added to the business. Every journey starts with a single step, as the Chinese proverb goes, and it is really important to start well. For anyone who has not yet read it, taking the approach recommended in “The First 90 Days” can be a recipe for any new hire (especially at a more senior level) to hit the ground running and make the right first impression.

On-Boarding Coaching

I’m also conscious that leaders of insight teams are even harder to find, so many organizations are needing to appoint, to the growing number of these roles, candidates with strong generic competencies but little or no experience of customer insight. Coaching at Work magazine recently published an article on on-boarding coaching and its growing popularity. Laughlin Consultancy can see a need for trained executive coaches with a background in customer insight leadership to help support this population to be as effective as possible through their first 90 days and so are providing that service.

Performance Management

Continuing motivation and engagement of analysts could be a blog post topic (if not a book) in its own right, but for now suffice to say that there is a natural tendency for this population to be more cynical. Marshall Goldsmith described most performance management systems as an occupational hazard at best, and there is a need to flex the company policy to better work for these skilled people. I was struck when reading “Punished by Rewards” as to the importance of not relying on bonuses or internal recognition systems to bribe them to work hard or give a high score in the next engagement survey – rather being genuinely interested in the work that they do and reclaiming the essential importance and nobility of that craft. For performance reviews, I would also recommend taking the approach recommended by Nancy Kline.

Competencies and Career Paths

One final recommendation, to achieve motivated and retained capable analysts, is to invest in a clear career path for them. People, especially analytical people, want to understand clearly how their skills match up to the ideals for each role and potential routes for their development if they can improve and “up-skill.” I have seen skilled analysts become very motivated by simply having clearly documented competencies for different technical roles and seniority within them. When you add to this clarity as to potential career routes through that matrix, it can lead to conversations and planning that result in those analysts staying for many years not just months.

I hope those tips are helpful to you. Please do share what has worked for you, too.