David Smith and Elisabetta Osta

Successful organisations are those best able to adapt to change.
The key is being primed with foresights that help chart a course in generally the right direction, and being alert to the need to change course en route. Here to point the way are seven challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for client-side and agency customer insight professionals.

1: Intensifying the way organisations listen to the customer’s voice and responding in an authentic way
The highly competitive, fast moving nature of today’s markets means that customer insight (CI) professionals need to be the wide-angle lenses of their organisations. They should be on top of all the sources of customer feedback. Increasingly, this means being able to interpret what social media is saying. This allows consumers to voice any disquiet, but should be carefully analysed to establish, for example, whether a spike in negative Twitter feedback really reflects the wider market or is only indicative of a short-term, knee-jerk reaction.

With highly empowered customer movements able to sniff out any non-authentic behaviour of large organisations, CI professionals must be on top of the voice of the customer agenda. For example, the UK Uncut movement was established in October, 2010, to protest corporate tax avoidance and raise awareness about cuts to public service organisations. Recently, the group successfully closed a Vodafone store, and we have seen customers attacking Starbucks’ track record on paying corporation tax in the UK.

2:  Enjoying the creativity opened up by the new customer insight toolbox
Traditional CI research methods will continue to play a key role, but these methods will evolve as technology opens new opportunities. Today, we can ask millions of respondents any number of open-ended questions. Given the availability of powerful analytics, feedback from open-ended questions can quickly be turned into rich insights. Previously, interpreting such a massive amount of unstructured data would have been impractical. Old-fashioned coding frames for understanding open-ended responses have been rendered obsolete.

The successful CI professional will keep on top of developments in our traditional methods, whilst staying abreast of the opportunities opened up by technology. The key new insight skill will be the ability to weave together the consumer story from many different sources holistically. For example, agencies will need to integrate their survey data with the powerful customer-transactional data held by companies. They will need to incorporate on-the-spot mobile phone surveys that tap into individuals’ emotions as they are living a particular experience, whilst embracing creative online qualitative research that allows us to assemble consumer video diaries and much more. Add to this the ability of facial recognition software to read peoples’ true emotions (rather than accept what people claim in traditional surveys), and we begin to see the power of a totally integrated approach to unearthing customer insights.

There must be an appetite for embracing new developments. For instance, we need to consider the possible impact if everybody has Google glasses: a world of hands-free interaction with the Internet via natural language voice commands creating display information in smartphone format. This could lead to an extra ‘built-in brain cell’ that allows people to process and act on information in real time. Far-fetched? Google is talking about introducing this in late 2013 for between US $200 and $500!

3:  Recognising that the customer insight role within client organisations will become ubiquitous
Given the pressure on organisations to differentiate themselves through game-changing insights, it will become clear that CI should be driven by the CEO. CI will involve every customer-facing member of an organisation, together with those working in critical research and development and innovation functions. In future, everyone will become heavily involved in the generation and application of insights.

Over the next few years we are likely to see official CI teams play more of a facilitator role. The CI professional’s job will be to ensure that innovative customer-centric thinking pervades every aspect of the organisation. This will call for some creative thinking regarding which organisational structures are best for managing the increasingly ubiquitous role CI must play.

4:  Emphasising accelerated, lean approaches to problem solving, ensuring insights are joined up and rapidly embedded into every aspect of the product- and service-design process

There are numerous examples of powerful, emotion-based insights having been successfully unearthed but not integrated into how the company creates its customer service offer or designs a new product.

Today there is talk of jugaad, the art of finding fast, simple, innovative and improvised ways of solving complex problems. This will gain greater currency as organisations struggle for resources, have more time pressures and face greater competition. Successful CI professionals will ensure that customer-centric thinking and insights are optimally applied and embedded throughout every aspect of the product- and service-design process.

The focus will be on CI professionals who can act quickly to stress test new ideas. Embryonic product ideas may go to a CI boot camp, where CIs professionals, working in a 24-hour problem resolution culture, identify the most critical, deal-breaker assumptions that underpin an idea and find fast ways of testing them before the project goes any further. These methods will be in great demand as the more classic, linear research-project process begins to look no longer fit for purpose.

5:  Embracing more collaborative networking models to help us expand our understanding of consumer behaviour
The pressure for CI professionals to find more penetrating ways of understanding what people really think and believe, and to understand the cognitive biases that characterise consumer decision-making behaviour will grow. We are likely to see stronger relationships between academia and business as the marketing intelligence industry seeks to understand what truly influences customers’ behaviour.

The collaboration between psychologists and economists which produced behavioural economics is a powerful reminder of the value of cross-disciplinary study. In future, we could find academics continuing to lead the way in unearthing new theories about human behaviour, but see market research agencies and client insight teams more involved in setting these in a commercial context. Both academics and practitioners might work in close partnership with technology companies that have the skills to convert this thought-leadership into leading-edge applied-research tools.

6:  Turning data-centric problems into simple, visual, intuitive solutions will become a core CI professional skill
The future belongs to those who not only can clearly present their data in an outstanding way, but can also engage and involve an audience in the implementation of their findings. We have seen a growing interest in applying story-telling techniques to business. But the skills of the CI professional will extend into working with visual graphics, to communicate like a journalist and almost take us into the movie – well, at least animated cartoon – business. We are seeing massive interest in infographics and visual analytics to ensure the CI message hits home.

We must respond to stakeholders who want CI communicated in a way that will engage, entertain and motivate them, and be available on their iPads, as a living customer-journey experience. CI professionals who are comfortable with storytelling and can visually simplify problems, whilst radiating energy and enthusiasm in involving an audience with their message, will have the key to the door.

7: inspirational CI management and leadership will become even more important
The success of CI will also depend on team leaders who can engender a symbiotic relationship between those who can write powerful algorithms to make sense of social media, and those working in a more qualitative mode, comfortable with co-creativity workshops and so on.

The insight leadership and management role will also include involving the C-suite in facilitating insight capability across the business, and working in collaboration with academics and other specialists in infographics, behavioural economics and beyond. Thus, the CI management and leadership role will be even more critical. Expect to see the arrival of an accredited and/or chartered professional qualification in insight management.

It is a good news story so let’s get started with some small steps
It is an exciting journey ahead, but there are challenges in adapting to the changes that success requires. Every journey starts with a first step, so let’s reverse the old adage ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’ to ‘Where there’s a way, there’s a will!’ That is, each day, find one hour to adapt, change or enhance one thing that you are currently doing that needs to change if you are to develop the skills the CI professional of the future. This opens a door, creating a practical way forward that will build confidence and initial skills, and provide a springboard to taking on the next part of the challenge of adapting to change.

David Smith is Director of DVL Smith and Elisabetta Osta is the Customer Insights, Planning and Innovation Director at Barclays Retail Bank.