November 26, 2016

Securing buy-in for Customer Insight, to overcome under-investment

By Paul Laughlin

Already, this year, I’ve had the opportunity to meet & work with a variety of customer insight leaders. All of them, in different contexts, struggle with the need to secure buy-in to the potential of customer insight for their business.

So, hopefully, it will help others to capture some of our thinking & achieve action in response.

These insight leaders come from different sectors & are working within businesses with different capabilities.

Some are currently leading largely research teams and are looking to grow their analytics capability. Others have skilled analysts, but have struggled to get use of insight embedded into marketing practice.

The Problem (lack of buy-in)

Having seen this situation is a number of different companies, it seems there can be different root causes.

Some insight teams are under-resourced, because they are seen as a ’nice to have’. The ‘fluffy stuff’ that enables leaders to sound customer centric (even if it is a thin whitewash over commercial plans). Normally in these circumstances the relevant senior leader is skeptical as to the commercial benefit of insight (some have even had their ‘fingers burnt’ with hype in the past).

In other cases, the root cause is lack of knowledge. That is, a complete lack of awareness as to the role that customer insight could play. Marketing leaders may have had years of experience designing propositions or targeting campaigns, with minimal input from analytics or research.

Finally, in rarer cases, the use of customer insight threatens a senior stakeholder. They may either be insecure about their own understanding (no one likes to be shown up), or they may perceive a threat to their current control over budget/resources through more robust measurement or greater focus on customer demand.

So, what approach can take the customer insight leader from zero to hero?

The Solution (which ‘how’ is right)

As ever, the best solution ‘depends’. A combination of organisational readiness, culture, senior stakeholder personalities, past experience & politics — can all shape what will work.

However, I have seen insight leaders make impressive progress against such barriers. So, I’d like to share some of the tactics which have helped others.

It’s rarely a good idea to follow any advice blindly & in this situation I would caution you to consider carefully which approach might best fit your context.

The Collaborative/Consensus Approach

In some cultures, taking a bottom-up approach to building ’the case’ works best. Often when leaders are more lacking awareness than opposed to insight-led marketing.

Here, bringing together interested parties from across the business can be effective. There is normally a scoping & winnowing required, to ensure the right level of seniority & ability. But, once you get to a suitable cross-functional team together, workshops can be an effective way to both share understanding & build a case for both greater coordination.

Workshops I have seem help in the past, include:

  • Show & Tell
  • Ways of Working
  • Envisioning
  • Barriers

Working in this way has all the normal challenges of working in diverse cross-business teams. At times, it can feel like herding cats. However, despite being slower than some approaches, when a case is presented to Executives on the basis of recommendation from across a business — it tends to be influential. There is also normally money to save (or additional costs to avoid) by coordinating business cases, rather than acting in isolation. That money should be reinvested into delivering a better data/analytics/insight environment for all users.

Acting Local Approach

But, sometimes, it is hard or impossible to start with such a ‘grassroots’ consensus at the beginning. You may feel you need to prove the case first, to demonstrate how insight can add value.

An alternative way to secure buy-in, for those situations, is to instead focus locally. That is, to concentrate on one area of the business (perhaps a product or channel), in order to embed & prove value there.

Over the years, I’ve seen insight leaders successfully take this approach in a number of different areas. Popular choices have been the ‘direct to consumer’ channel, customer retention teams & a mature product line (needing to achieve greater utilisation/up-sell).

Often, the key to selecting the right area in which to focus insight efforts, is influenced by the attitude of the director/leader of that function. Finding a supportive, or at least open, sponsor can make all the difference when pilots require further time or resources.

Wherever you focus, it’s key to identify a number of things from the beginning:

  • Priority business issues for that function (Is there a ‘burning platform’ that needs to be fixed?)
  • Availability of data (Even if not all together in one SCV, what data can you access?)
  • Maturity of capability (Both in terms of data/analytics/research teams & in terms of internal customers)
  • Size of the prize (What is the potential value, ROI, of fixing different business problems)

Armed with that understanding, it often helps for the customer insight leader to run a localised workshop or planning session. This should include educating internal customers on where customer insight could be used & the benefits of embedding in existing processes. In addition, potential applications for data/analytics/research should be listed & prioritised using a classic prioritisation matrix (a 2 x 2 grid of potential value against ease of delivery ). For the first insight project, select stars from the ‘high potential value & easier to implement’ quadrant.

Continuing to work in this way, by generating value of the local team, embedding ongoing usage in their processes & measuring ROI – will build a case study to influence the wider business. It also has the advantage of educating the local internal customers to be advocates of customer insight  the difference it can make (so once again, you are not making the case yourself).

Education Roadshow Approach

A third approach, worth highlighting, is an internal ‘roadshow’ or educational event.

A couple of times whilst coaching customer insight leaders, they have come to the realisation that the resistance they are encountering from senior leaders is not ‘bloody mindedness’, but due to lack of understanding. Human nature makes it all too easy to see those who disagree with us, or remain unconvinced, as ‘enemies’ to be vanquished. But, most leaders want to do what is best for their business, so it’s more likely that any resistance comes from them not yet seeing the evidence for why money spent on customer insight isn’t wasted.

If you find yourself unable to just ‘get on & do it’, using one of the two tactics already outlined, it may be worth considering starting with education.

Here, like most training, the key is to be engaging & interactive. How can you ‘bring to life’ the power of customer insight?

A few ideas & topics that I’ve seen engage business leaders & their teams elsewhere:

  • Customer Personas (when based on a robust segmentation & communicated through ‘Vox Pops’, life-size cut-outs, ongoing soap operas etc)
  • Case Studies from same or other sectors (other sectors can be of more interest or include admired brands, competitors can feel more relevant)
  • Visualised Simulation models (showing, for example, the financial impact of improved marketing targeting or fixing the classic customer churn ‘leaky bucket’)
  • External Speakers (getting in eloquent academics, industry experts or consultants who used to work for competitors – can inspire/challenge leaders, especially on “strategy away days”)
  • Meet the Customer (for brave boards, this can mean physically bringing carefully selected customers in to say what they think – otherwise use video or remote scoring from live panels)

Whatever approach is used, the aim should be a mixture of engaging fun & landing a commercial message. That customer insight is needed by the business, can be actionable & has tremendous potential to deliver both commercial returns and improved CX.

Final thoughts on Humility

In closing, let me say that a little humility can go a long way.

The first reason for saying this is to encouraging listening. As Stephen Covey famously encouraged, “seek first to understand & then to be understood”. Don’t assume you know why there is skepticism or lack of action. Ask open questions & demonstrate the humility to genuinely want to understand challenges facing your exec team.

The second reason, is to avoid over-selling. Most customer insight leaders become passionate about what they do, sometimes especially in the face of adversity. So, it can be tempting to add a little hype or to over-promise. That is a mistake. Most execs will see through it & your better approach (to build a reputation as trusted adviser) is to under promise & over deliver.

So, put away your white horse & suit of armour. Go into senior meetings ready to learn & see how you may be able to help. Then look out for opportunities to start one of the above approaches.

Start small, ensure you deliver & measure value. Then increase scope & repeat, until you have achieved the buy-in you need for investment.

I wish you well on your journey to achieving senior level buy-in and the investment you need to grow the Customer Insight capability that your business needs.

It is a very fulfilling goal, but appreciate the journey too.