More than a decade of creating and leading insight teams has taught me that two aspects of culture are critical for customer insight teams to make a real difference to the wider business. One is collaboration between the different technical disciplines (to deliver holistic customer insights). The other is action-orientation, galvanizing the team behind a vision of driving change in the real world. This goes beyond delivery of technical analysis or Powerpoint, to focus on the decision and action needed to deliver commercial results and improved experiences as judged by your customers.
As with most cultural challenges, this one takes time, determination and consistency in leadership. Mostly through getting it wrong first, which seems to be how I’ve learned most of my leadership lessons, I have discovered a few tips that help embed this action-oriented culture. None is a panacea, and each needs to be practiced consistently and equitably, so they become assumed and just embedded in the “the way we do things around here.”
Anyway, enough soap-boxing from me: here are those four tips from the trenches for building a culture of action:
1. Filter out requests that won’t drive action.
The most sensible place to start with culture change is at the start of new work processes. It’s important to train and support your analysts in challenging new requests for work and, importantly, using incisive questioning to drill down to the real need. By focusing on what the internal stakeholder really needs, not just what he wants, it should be possible to uncover the real motivation. An analyst should make clear that the reason for this questioning is two-fold: (a) to better understand the real need so as to identify the most appropriate solution (across a number of potential technical approaches) or identify that existing work could meet that need; (b) to check what action will be taken as a result of answering the question. The latter is what is critical to this culture change. If such questioning reveals that it’s really just of academic interest to another leader and that there is no commitment to take action on the results, then you should back your analyst in declining. Customer insight work only adds value if it is acted upon, and you cannot afford for costly technical resource to be tied up satisfying someone else’s intellectual curiosity or desire to appear smart.
2. All output must include recommendations.
Once the technical work has been completed, the important work of writing up the results and telling a compelling story to engage the business begins. Any customer insight leader should make clear to the team that this output (often in PowerPoint) must include clear recommendations for action. Wherever possible, this should include decisions or actions that the business can take promptly, even if they are only interim steps before a final solution. Even if the insight work has simply identified the need for more data or further work, that must be drawn out as a clear recommendation, alongside any investment or change needed in the wider business to avoid being in this situation again. Consistently requiring clear recommendations that force the business to take decisions, including sending work back to analysts as unacceptable, will drive change.
3. Refocus your progress updates on action taken.
Regular update meetings or calls are a feature of most insight teams. Depending on your organizational culture and personal management style, you may do these weekly, fortnightly or monthly and may favor “morning prayers,” mid-day meeting or end-of-the-day “wrap ups.” However you do it, as a leader what you choose to focus on in these meetings often conveys more in terms of culture than your words. Requiring updates to be structured in terms of the action they are aimed to drive (i.e. improvement in commercial metric or improvement in customer experience scores) and protecting time to check in on progress with the required business decisions and actions needed to achieve these, will speak volumes to your managers and team. It is key to make clear that, in assessing everyone’s performance, you want the acid test to be what change they have driven in the “real world,” not just the efficiency of the process following or delivery of great-looking slides. This does raise the bar and require your team to influence stakeholders in other teams, attend key meetings and even “walk the floor” — but getting out there is great for showing to the wider business and your team that you care about the difference being made.
4. Communicate to the top table with final outcomes.
I’ve shared previously some tips for influencing once in the boardroom or executive committee. A key part of engaging these directors is communicating in terms of what matters to them. Here, leveraging the regular updates you receive in terms of action being taken and communicating in terms of the outcomes being driven (improved incremental income/profit or improved net promoter score (NPS), et al.) can make a huge difference to how customer insight is perceived. I have seen many a director over the years turn from skepticism to passionate support once she experienced that the customer insight leader doesn’t just want to bore with jargon but rather is actively engaged with how insight is improving the key commercial numbers and ensuring better customer experience. Coupled with visible cooperation with marketing and operations, to ensure that the insight “baton” is safely passed to those teams owning taking action and that you continue to run with them to ensure things work in practice, can build positive impressions that deliver support in the boardroom .
I hope those tips help. None is rocket science and I’m sure only serve as a reminder of best practices you know already, but I hope that’s a good thing, too.
As a final comment, just let me say that an orientation toward action also has benefits for your customer insight team members. Almost every analyst/researcher that I’ve employed over the years wants to make a difference. They want all those hours in the office to count for something — to result in an improvement they are proud of. So, although it can seem like more work for them to start with, I have seen delivering the above culture also be welcomed by a team who start to sit up straighter and believe in themselves more. The sense of pride they experience in being a key part of your business and not just being good at what they do but delivering insights that really matter, is a huge benefit. In these days of so many businesses struggling to recruit and retain analytical talent, the difference can also be a real source of competitive advantage.
In fact, working on your customer insight team culture could be a far better investment than the latest shiny software or more external data. It might just be your only sustainable competitive advantage in the coming talent wars.