Making Consumer Insights A Company’s Best Investment
Fall 2014 GRIT Report commentary by Manila Austin, VP, Research at Communispace, sharing her thoughts on the current state of the market research industry.
Today, consumers are in more control than ever; they want to influence (or even co-create) the products and services they buy, and they expect to have a say in how businesses conduct themselves in the marketplace. Given the enthusiasm consumers have to engage with companies, and the myriad technologies we have at our disposal for doing so, consumer insights should represent companies’ best investment in the business, not simply a cost of doing business. But this is rarely the case.
Most companies claiming to be “customer-centric” aren’t. Research from Bain & Company shows that 80% of companies think they provide a superior customer experience, yet only 8% of customers agree. And The Boston Consulting Group found that 73% of insight personnel believe they consistently answer the question “so what?” about the data they provide, but only 34% of business line personnel agree with them.
These studies are not new; they are several years old, in fact. What is troubling is that, as an industry, we have yet to fundamentally change the way we work — with consumers, with business stakeholders, with data, and with the insights we gather.
This assertion is based on evidence. Over the past year, I have talked with more than 50 of our clients about their strategies for transforming consumer insights into business impact. While I heard some amazing success stories, everyone acknowledged that they face significant challenges in using insights to drive results. Everything from the quality — or quantity — of data, to lack of focus, to ineffective storytelling and disengaged business partners can prevent decision-makers from internalizing and acting upon insights.
To realize our potential (to create value and impact), we must adopt an investment mindset rather than think of our work as an additional cost of doing business.
The results in this report suggest we are moving in this direction. Research buyers and suppliers alike identify most strongly with being “consultants” (67%) and “big issue thinkers” (42%), which represent increases from last winter’s survey. Only 28% of us identified with being “research technicians,” and this number is trending down. What was interesting and surprising to me (based on what I have learned from my interviews), was the relatively less important identifier of “business driver” (31%), which has remained flat. My fear is that our ability to be consultants will remain aspirational unless we also see ourselves — and are seen by those we need to influence — as business drivers. What would our work look like, I wonder, if we truly owned the voice of the customer and used it to propel the business? Our recommendations would be more targeted and relevant. Critical information would land in the right hands. And, rather than focusing on justifying our expense, we would more easily partner with our clients to co-create ROI.
As insight professionals, we must shed our “cost-center” self-perception. When we imagine what influences our clients’ decisions regarding choice of data collection method, cost is the number one factor (8.5). Yet when we examine how research buyers answer this question, quality (8.5), impact (8.2), and speed (7.3) outweigh cost (7.2). The idea that the value we bring depends, first and foremost, on being inexpensive moves us away from thinking about how to drive results, and towards a defensive stance that can undercut our ability to become business drivers. By focusing on value, quality, and impact, our work will be seen as an intrinsic investment, and cost will become less of a barrier.
Many of the questions in this report attempt to paint a picture of our industry in the near future. I asked all the clients I interviewed: How do you think consumer insights will evolve over the next five years? Many voiced themes similar to what were found in this study: data, technology and mobile, for example, represent both opportunities and challenges. One nuance that emerged from my analysis, however, was that creating business impact requires a fundamental change in how we engage with consumers and company stakeholders.
Today’s consumers are actually as much a vital and intrinsic part of our companies as are employees. Yet we remain stuck thinking about consumers as living “outside” of our organizations – as mere respondents or passive feedback givers. One way we, as insight professionals, can stop focusing on cost at the expense of value and quality is to find creative ways to design consumers into businesses to create impact. Rather than being a “gatekeeper” of the consumer’s voice, we can be an active facilitator: engaging consumers in innovative ways to uncover remarkable insights, helping stakeholders internalize those insights and, ultimately, integrating the consumer into business design, development, and other key processes to drive growth and the marketplace.