Once upon a time, it was enough to have develop better products than competitors, provide a superior service, or find new operational efficiencies. These were all important markers of success. But today, as every business seeks faster growth — they are simply the cost of entry. The fee to play the game. Today’s competitive advantage is found in understanding customers and adapting business practices to suit them better than any other players on the field. And that’s what a good customer insight team can offer.
But that’s not to say building a customer insight team is easy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The customer insight team of the 21st century requires a diverse set of skills that is constantly evolving. Some have characterised recent changes as a shift from business introversion to extraversion. While others suggest the hard skills and knowledge domains that are sought after are a larger driving force.
As for me? I can see the case for both.
In reality, the truth is likely messier. A melting pot of new skills, new technologies, new roles for insights professionals — all thrust together with new, greater expectations. However, at this critical juncture, smart businesses are taking a step back and look at what goes into building a successful insight team. What are they looking for? Let’s take a look.
Integrators and Socialisers
Perhaps one of the more significant changes of late has been in the perception and associated role of customer insight professionals. Gone are the stereotypes of back-office number crunchers pouring over reams of spreadsheets — divorced of connection with other departments. In that place now, sits a view of researchers as an important glue that can bind departments together, catalyse innovation and deliver competitive intelligence.
To do this, insight teams are shifting from a reactive role, to one which is very much pro-active and involved. From analysing data to interpreting, reporting and activating it. From following to leading. And that requires skill, competency, business acumen and — above all else — a desire to bring about change. It is this drive to make an impact that every member of a customer insight team must possess in order to succeed.
Social awareness, the capacity to network and a proficiency in clear communication are all traits that can support a team’s work — and should be sought by those looking to put customer data at the heart of business.
The Hard Skills Required
Market research has always been a diverse field. But since the tech explosion that has engulfed it, the available data types and sources has increased dramatically. It’s impractical that a single individual can have an in-depth knowledge about each. Even in a reasonably sized team, there are tough decisions that need to be taken; decisions that will impact which methodologies are given more weight, and the projects customer insight will inform.
To that end, when considering the hard skills, a new (or growing) customer insight team should be on the lookout for, here are some of the questions that should be asked:
- What forms of data are most important to the business, and what skills should we be nurturing to improve our use of such data? Into this consideration can be bought debates about the weighting of qual & quant, first, second & third party data, active & passive data, new & established sources etc.
- How will agency and external supplier relationships factor into the team dynamic and wider business? Niche specialisms may be acquired more readily through the services of an agency. Additionally, to optimise efficiency, duplication of specialist skills should be avoided.
- In what areas of the business can customer insight add the most immediate, lasting and recurring value?
- Which technologies are currently, or should be, in place that a team will need to be comfortable with?
While there may be no blueprint for the perfect, or even the average, customer insight team — what we can say with confidence is that by asking the right questions and carefully considering what a business needs, customer insight can be a competitive advantage.
What Does Success Look Like?
What is more challenging, however, is defining what success in such a team looks like. Unlike operational teams, the role of customer insight is unpredictable. It can be led as much by customers themselves as the business, and is often a real-life example of uncovering unknown-unknowns.
So, without pre-defined parameters around what success looks like — is it even possible to measure? Yes. Most definitely; in varying degrees of complexity. In fact, the simplest way to gauge whether or not investing in a customer insight team had paid off is with a simple question:
What business functions or operations would change if we no longer had access to a customer insight team?
This question can be built on in several ways. It can become more granular and look to identify differences in efficiency rates pre- and post-insight. It can be considered from a utilitarian point of view — listing only direct affects. Or, it can look at metrics tracked by the teams themselves; using customer opinions and sentiment to identify changes over time.
But the most important element is that if a clear, tangible and direct correlation can be made between the work a customer insight team is doing and business improvement, then it is functioning as intended. And if it’s not, the most important next question to ask is what roadblocks sit between that team and success?
Examples of Success
If you’re looking to build and grow a customer insights team, then I’ve also got some examples to share with you. Hopefully these will map out some of the key challenges, considerations and even help you avoid common pitfalls:
- Unilever and The Insight Engine (via HBR)
- The Sky Strategic Insights Team
- BCGs Four Stages of Insight Team Maturity
Boston Consulting Group’s four stages of insight team maturity is a particularly interesting read. It highlights that only 20% of all teams make it to their final two stages — becoming strategic insight partners and sources of competitive advantage. To address this, the management consultancy suggests three steps: creating a clear vision, finding an executive champion and minimising gaps in communication.
Importantly, what this suggests, is that simply going through the motions of building an insight team is not enough. There is always room for improvement and growth. But companies that do manage to achieve the insight holy grail are rewarded with a strong competitive advantage — giving every team something to aim for.
The original version of this article appeared on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.