Insights Association CEO David W. Almy sits down with two key members of the research practice  at Gongos, Inc.: Senior Research Strategists Kelly Jasper and Curtis Kaisner.

  • How a single framework can be leveraged to understand the whole human.
  • The rational, emotional and physical - what's the right balance to deliver true insight?
  • Creating actionability and accountability that earns that coveted “seat at the table”.
  • Making the transition from researcher to change manager. 
  • Why the best plan often means not having one.

David: I’ve heard the exciting news that you’re building a new headquarters in Royal Oak, Michigan and it will be finished by June of 2018. Do you think that will have an impact on the company or is it that you’ll just have easier access to better restaurants?

<laughter>

Curtis: Definitely better restaurants! No doubt. I think any time you move to a new place it’s invigorating. We essentially started with a blank canvas, affording us the opportunity to design a space that is conducive to what we do and how we do it. We are creating a more open environment that better matches our collaborative working model. It sort of super-charges some of the changes that we’ve already put in motion.

Kelly: Where we’re going is a cool, urban downtown setting that will better match our culture. We have a really fun, vibrant company. The new space and downtown area will really enhance that.

David: Tell me a bit about yourselves. When did you get to Gongos and what do you do there?

Kelly: I’ve been in the marketing research industry for about 15 years. Moving to Gongos in 2006 has enabled me to work across a variety of industries from healthcare to automotive to CPG. I’ve worked with a lot of different teams here. The one constant is that we're all trying to accomplish the same thing: bring our clients closer to their customers. I do that primarily through quantitative research, including strategic segmentation and pricing strategy. However, my specific focus now tends to be on advanced analytical approaches and more strategic work.  

Curtis: I’ve spent my 20-year career here. I started as an intern and from day one was drawn to qual and moderating. Today, leading our qualitative group, I develop our moderators and seek out new partners and cutting-edge approaches to add to our repertoire. A recent area of focus has been advancing our techniques in the realm of both conscious and subconscious thought. To help our clients get their head around the complexities in this area, we’ve developed a tool we call our Human Decision-Making Framework™. While it began as a qual effort, it encompasses many of our approaches to understanding the whole human. We apply it to: a) determine what our clients already know about their customers from the rational, emotional and physical aspects of decision making; b) to identify the gaps that exist and; c) design approaches to get at those.

David: You mention the rational, emotional and physical. What percentage of time would you say is devoted to each?

Curtis: That’s an excellent question. Part of it is understanding what data and information our clients have at their disposal, and where their knowledge gaps are. In traditional qualitative, focus groups might have been the first, or only, step to get at deeper understanding. After ten years of doing focus groups on the same issue, clients are realizing that they are not going to discover any new revelations. As a result, they are willing to pull levers on more emotional and neuro-based approaches. So, it really depends on the business challenge and the client when it comes to where the focus needs to be, and what that balance is overall.

David: Kelly, you said you know you're the quantitative person here. Was that genetic? Who can we blame for this?  

Kelly: I've always been a numbers girl. So that lends itself more to quant, obviously. I actually enjoy seeing a spreadsheet filled with data and be able to analyze it and find a story in the numbers. I've always liked being able to stand behind results to say, “We know, for a fact, this is happening and here is the data to back it up.”

David: There was a time when there was a sort of church-and-state separation between qual and quant. Now they have clearly morphed together. Was it a gradual evolution for you here, or was there a specific milestone that marked the change?  

Kelly: We’ve actually been merging the two for more than ten years.

Curtis: We're seeing much more momentum with researchers moving to hybrid approaches. As a whole, the industry has embraced that and we’ve been very nimble when looking at holistic approaches to qual and quant. The opportunity to work with clients in large organizations where change can be gradual, and helping them navigate that change is exciting. They acknowledge the need to break down silos between their analytics and insights groups; while better communicating with—and learning from—one another.

David: Kelly, how important is qual to you?

Kelly: Extremely important. Right now we're actually incorporating aspects of qual directly into a quant study. We’re fielding a survey where a subset of respondents will upload video so they can show the emotion behind their reactions. So, the succession is no longer about starting with qual and ending with quant, or vice-versa.

David: Curtis, give me your perspective on how you’re handling qualitative research right now.

Curtis: What has really invigorated me is seeing different techniques emerge and how those play out with the initiatives we're partnering with our clients on. Our experts in qual and quant work closely together in formal collaboration sessions to ensure our clients get the best of both worlds. 

Kelly: How we handle studies has really changed. We can provide pricing on the approach requested in an RFP, but how we prefer to respond is, “Here’s how we would approach this issue as a collaborative partner,” and then provide our recommendations on how we envision the best way to proceed.

David: You describe situations where you are leading your clients. Are some clients leading you, pushing you?

Kelly: Every client is in a different place. Some are more forward-focused and may have read an article about something new and want to explore it. Others are more traditional.

Curtis: The clients who are eager to push change within their organizations often look to us to help them. In those situations it often becomes a very honest conversation. They will come to us and say, “These are some of the things we’re trying to accomplish. Is this something you can help us figure out?” versus them saying, “This is what we want you to do.”

David: Are there any consistent characteristics among the clients that are doing the pushing, the ones that are more forward-focused?

Curtis: They’re not in any particular industry. I think it’s more of a function of where their C-suite sees things. That, and the degree to which they are embracing customer centricity. Those are often organizations determined that customer centricity is an action, not just a vision.

David: Right. So, they are operationalizing it and making it real. Interesting. So, where's the leading edge here? What's the future look like to you both? What are the best and the brightest doing today?

Kelly: I think they are embracing the fact that we are changing and not holding onto only proven methods. They start by looking at the things they already know and ask, “What is the business challenge we're trying to address?” Then together we decide on the best approach.

Curtis:  With one healthcare client, we’re in the midst of defining how a long-term initiative is going to take shape. We’ve spent hours upon hours working with their top executives to determine the questions we need to find the answers to, and define the scope of their business challenge. We’re really serving as a consultant playing a central role in outlining the general plan. And, depending on what we learn in phase one, we’re likely to adjust the phases that follow.

David: That’s a pretty intimate relationship that you just described because it's not a third party, outsourced, one-time project. You've got a seat at the table.

Kelly:  Yes, and it’s not just the insights team at the table. It pulls in stakeholders across the organization. It's a lot broader than what we had traditionally been doing.  

Curtis: It’s helping them navigate the obstacles inside their organization, knowing the sacred cows that exist.  We also help them create actionability and accountability within different groups to make sure they extend beyond a one-time initiative. In cases like this, we’re actually talking about change management initiatives that both include and go beyond research objectives.  

David: How do you earn that seat at the table? It’s not like they put out an RFP that they’re looking for adjunct staff that will have intimate knowledge and influence over the future of the company. How do you get qualified that way?

Curtis: Part of it is the relationships we've built over time and credibility established through the work that we do. Another thing that’s gotten us to higher and broader audiences is our integration and socialization work. Some clients still struggle with how to deliver insights that don’t sit idle, but live, breathe and inspire multiple teams internally. We do that well.

David: So, you've both been here for 10 to 20 years. Aside from the learning what takes place doing your jobs each day and collaborating with clients, is there any formalized learning that happens in your lives. How do you get better at what you do?  

Kelly: We attend conferences, and anytime someone attends they do a formal share out of the learnings to either leadership or the entire company. We’re also generous with information sharing and have an internal training program called P3. There’s also a lot of idea generation among everyone here regarding new tools or techniques they’ve discovered or experiences they’ve had.  

Curtis: In addition to those things, we really pay close attention to the evolution of the industry and our clients’ pain points. Part of that is keeping an ear to the ground and making sure we're looking ahead, growing in the direction of their industries and our own industry. Ongoing growth is also relative to who we hire. Traditionally it was predominantly people with marketing or research backgrounds. Today, we are bringing in designers, people inherently skilled at visually communicating information, and of course, data scientists and mathematicians. Given big data and higher-order analytics, clients are wrestling with vast amounts of data and we need to be able to address all of it. Besides that, we look for people who are comfortable with ambiguity and experimentation. These qualities help push us all forward.  

David: Here's the heretical question — is that related to age, or is it more a function of attitude and age doesn't matter?

Kelly: I think both. Millennials provide an important perspective and they crave change; they seek different things and want new opportunities to learn.

Curtis: While we’ve grown from 20 employees when I started to about 135 now, we have maintained very much of that entrepreneurial or startup mindset. So, it’s a culture that’s very encouraging of thought starters—people who are driven and collaborative.

David: Talk to me about the top three things in your respective worlds that excite you about the future.

Curtis: The first is collaboration. For years I was completely surrounded by qualitative researchers, but now having an influx of colleagues who think and approach things differently is invigorating. Second is the realization that qual and big data can, and should, live together. The opportunity for qualitative only grows with the increase of data at our clients’ disposal. All of that data is not going to be entirely useful unless we can get to the “whys” behind it. All in all, big data’s influence on our industry means qualitative is that much more important because data needs to be humanized.

Kelly: I also enjoy the collaboration with our data scientists. They approach problem solving from a limitless standpoint, and are using platforms and open source tools relatively new to our industry. They have new approaches to segmentation, for example, and part of my job is to translate that statistical jargon into something that's more consumable for our clients. The second is mobile. Surveys have become shorter and more intuitive so they can be effective on mobile devices, and capturing feedback in the moment is a win for all our clients. The third thing that excites me is not knowing where any given project will end up. Where we used to be satisfied with rigid approaches, now we start digging knowing it may lead us down another path. We are revealing new questions we didn’t think we had, and uncovering new answers as a result.

David: Sounds like you’re both having fun. And I’m sure that will continue when you move into your new office. I’d love to come visit. Camille [Nicita, Gongos’ CEO] said this summer would work. I’d love to see your new place and meet you both face to face. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.