team needs a purpose
October 5, 2020

Why your Customer Insight or Analytics team needs a purpose

By Paul Laughlin

Leaders keen to avoid management bull**** sometimes challenge why a customer insight or analytics team needs a purpose.

Is this just more of the spin that’s too often illustrated around corporate offices, with mission statement plaques & colourful values on the wall? I’d argue no. In fact, a clear purpose and a sense of purpose can make a huge difference to such teams.

There is much I could write on this topic, but I’ll summarise some key thoughts in this post. Let’s explore together why such a purpose is needed, different themes that can help & how to get started.

The purpose of purpose

Tony Boobier has shared with us before on the benefits of a clear mission statement for any team. He highlighted the need for clarity, focus, direction & accountability. Whilst all true, I’d add another key reason why Customer Analytics or Insight teams need a common purpose.

That is to feel motivated about the importance of the work that they do. We all want to feel that we make a difference with our work. Few people want to just be paid money for grinding out the hours. Most analysts & leaders want to be able to step back, admire an achievement & say “I did that.”

This is especially true for all Customer focussed teams. Akin to the best way to lead Customer Experience teams, there is a need to bring to life the difference such work can make to other people. For technical teams, there is also a huge benefit in painting a bigger picture, helping analysts or data scientists see beyond their technical tasks. Team members should be able to answer: “What is it all for?” or “What is the point of this analysis?”

Such an approach has the added benefit of bringing to life for analysts that they need more than technical skills. Softer Skills make more sense in the light of a purpose beyond the transactional delivery of data/models/stuff.

Common purpose themes that help such teams

The content of such a purpose will rightly vary from team to team, business to business & sector to sector. It may well also need to change over time, as needs change as well as what is possible to meet those needs.

However, having led and advised such teams for over 25 years, I have seen some common themes. So, here are three styles of purpose for customer insight teams that I have seen motivate and mobilise them to make a difference.

(1) Voice of the Customer

Perhaps the most common, especially for more market research skilled Customer Insight teams, is Customer Champion. A vivid picture of the team as advocates for their customers, being a voice for those who have no voice at the top table.

Done well (informed by behavioural analysis, qualitative research and time taken testing potential insights) this can be very successful. Indeed it can carve out a crucial role within organisations, especially if the leader can communicate succinctly & powerfully in senior meetings.

Two elements appear key to success. First, prioritisation. Out of all the mass of potential information about customer behaviour & attitudes, what matters most now for this audience? Second, robust evidence. Take the time to converge research with behavioural evidence & to consider the competitive context in your experimentation & interpretation. It’s crucial that leaders come across as commercially credible not just caring about customers. They need both in such a purpose.

(2) Evidence-led decision making

Another common (and helpful) theme is a purpose focussed on transforming the robustness of decision making. Some teams will use the language of data-led, some evidence-led, but all envision an internal transformation. Tackling a historic bias towards gut-level decision making and HIPPO (Highly Important Person’s Personal Opinion).

Once again, done well this can hugely benefit the wider organisation and the team. If purpose 1 has the potential to achieve greater customer advocacy, this purpose can achieve improving internal reputation. For the most senior leaders in the organisation, it can evidence the benefit of having such a team & secure their future role.

When taking this approach, I’d call out two things to keep in view. Firstly, pick your battles. Be sure of the “evidence” you have (test potential challenges & questions beforehand, including politics games/distractions). Plus, don’t try to change everything at once, choose a few important decisions where you believe you can make a measurable improvement. Secondly, build relationships. This is a cultural change and you need to build alliances & develop trust along the way. Take time to listen.

(3) Realising the ROI of all our data

Ever since terms like Big Data and Data Science started being so popular in leadership journals, CEO’s have been seeking to achieve the gains touted by others. This has often led to pressure on executives ill-equipped with the technical knowledge to see how they can do it. That is why this purpose can be so welcome.

It can also be about delivering on an internal promise. Often Analytics or Data Science teams have been funded on the promise of “gold at the end of the rainbow”. As was shown by the ‘AI Winter‘ after the 1990s, if over-hyped teams don’t deliver on such expectations that can also disappear quickly.

Once again it can be helpful to be evolutionary, not revolutionary in approach. Choose use cases carefully and demonstrate measurable savings (or extra income) case by case. It’s also worth prioritising relevance over complexity. Rather than seeking to impress stakeholders with the latest technology, revel in getting them to adopt even simple solutions that get used & so realise ROI now.

How can you get started on this journey?

Perhaps you currently lead a Customer Insight or Analytics team. Are you wondering how to get started & a little concerned that your diary is already full? My advice would be to not delay. If you and your team currently lack a clear purpose then you need one. You can test this by randomly asking any member of your team. If they can’t tell you what it is in a few minutes, then you don’t have one.

My first advice would be to protect time to think. Work like vision and purpose can’t be delegated or fully democratic. Having a clear view on this as a leader is part of your responsibility. As advised in “Living Forward” take some time out away from others to think about what really matters.

A timeline of 3 years from now can be a helpful point of focus. It is not so far (e.g. 5-10 years) that you have little idea what the world will be like by then. Nor is it too near that there is not enough time to change. Consider what you want the team to look like by then. What difference is it making in your business? How is it helping customers & the bottom line?

Take the time to write your thoughts down in some detail (aim for 3-5 pages). Then come back and meet with your direct reports. Articulate your thinking & humbly ask for their help in thinking through what that would mean in practice. Work together to capture something that is both stretching (motivational) & achievable (worth trying). Then together plan how to take is out to your wider team & business.

Do you agree that your customer insight team needs a purpose?

I hope those few thoughts were helpful. What do you think? Do you agree that such an approach is worthwhile? Do you have any stories to share about how you clarified & communicated a purpose for your team? What benefits did you realise as a result?

Perhaps you have some doubts or challenges? Please feel free to share those too. What is not clear yet? What can go wrong? What have I not considered? Let’s start a conversation focussed on what’s really needed and how to make a positive difference in your business.