This article was inspired by “What Business Is This Anyway?” a panel discussion presented at the Insights Association’s Corporate Researchers Conference on October 15, 2018. Gongos President & CEO Camille Nicita facilitated the discussion among panelists Thays Morgan, Marketing Communications Consultant, Global Customer Commercial Leadership, The Coca-Cola Company; Anne-Marie Davidson, Senior Research Analyst, REI; and Sydney Leonard, Knowledge Management, Southwest Airlines.

An insights professional in the audience said it perfectly when this panel discussion came to an end.  She suggested that while so many of us in the insights field have very distinct roles and very different skillsets that can’t be condensed into a single university degree, we all share the same goal. That is, to rally the entire organization around true customer understanding and add value to our businesses.

She was right. As seen in the summary below, the panelists brought a diverse range of expertise, differing uses and interactions with data, and various success measurements. These and their collective experience provided a well-rounded view of how corporate insights colleagues are broadening their influence, and how their roles are evolving with the times.

What do you believe is your unique contribution to your organization?
Constantly reminding the rest of the organization about the world outside our walls brings true context and understanding to decision making across the board.  Also, providing an unbiased, objective approach without falling victim to company politics is something our research-first mindset excels at.

Lastly, insights professionals tend to model continual learning by instilling information that compels others to lead with a collective wisdom across teams for consistent and measurable behavioral change.

Do executive teams agree in how you define your value?
Most certainly, executive teams trust researchers to check their assumptions. However, there is opportunity to see both research and insights groups as less of a body of calibration and validation, and more about purveyors of the new, sometimes unforeseen, reality.

Within marketing departments, there is generally solid support for the customer insights teams, and they are brought to the table often and early to weigh in on the right conversations.

Has anything changed over time to alter these perceptions of value?
Certainly today, insights groups are engaging more directly with many different constituents, tapping into an extensive variety of data sources and technology to inform content curation, strategy, and marketing.

Combinations of tools traditionally used for insights group strategy planning are now paired with tools made available through technology like Google Analytics, to provide more real-time planning and stakeholder engagement.

Insights groups are also doing a lot more analytics work for internal stakeholders. Finding themes and insights across brand tracking, customer experience surveys, performance analytics, and every other measurement gathered has become even more important for consistent story telling across all sources and constituents.      

What are your thoughts on emerging C-suite roles in our field?
There is excitement around the Chief Customer Officer role which is becoming more common in corporate organizations today.  This leader stands to provide a cohesive center point to wrangle all departments, ensuring accountability and consistency across former silos. 

That said, it is everyone's job to understand and enhance the customer's experience—not just marketing or the customer experience group within marketing.  In any scenario, insights are foundational to customer experience, so it’s important that new leaders recognize that.

How important is Customer Experience?
Customers say the experience is everything, but when some companies analyze actual behavior, it points to price and availability as the primary reasons for consumer actions. Insights groups allow companies to get at what it is about the price that drove the positivity, e.g., is it the joy of getting a deal that made the customer feel satisfied?

In this light, customer experience is going to be a game-changer, especially where products are commoditized. Insights groups can play a role in understanding what leads to a better experience, how and why price and availability drive decisions, and where partnership offers and other value-adds will separate a brand from the rest of the pack.

What does customer centricity mean to you?
If customer experience is the external manifestation of a brand promise, then customer centricity is the internal mechanism that helps fuel it. Put another way, customer centricity is how a group acts inside the organization, and the customer experiences are the ultimate outcome for how it plays to customers.

For some, customer centricity is foundational to the development of personalized offers, messaging, and media used to target customers.  On the other hand, customer experience can be seen as the in-moment interaction with the brand.  The truth is, they all blend to form a brand impression whether it's customer relations, social media interactions, customized offers, or one-to-one marketing.

Are there barriers to customer centricity?
Running up against technology and resources is a struggle. Getting systems up and running with personalization and integrating them with other programs in the company can make for a clunky start.

Internal silos also create critical barriers. It can be detrimental when groups are not aligned on how they are representing the brand promise to consumers—whether in survey language or a CRM call.  That lack of continuity and consistency can lead to misfired data, as well as mixed external communication.

At the higher levels, there can also be the gap between what is seen as the customer need and what is seen as the business need, and that requires true alignment between the frontline and leadership.

Has anything worked to overcome those barriers?
It helps to have leadership’s understanding in figuring out the personalization process throughout the company because it affects so many different groups.  It’s important to approach the process as an opportunity for continuous improvement for all.

It also pays off to spend some time with groups that tend to go rogue to ensure their needs are met and that they will value, believe in, and advocate for the results.

Are there any metrics companies put against customer centricity?
Customer centricity can be a nebulous philosophy because it depends on how one defines being customer centric. For some companies, at least for now, it is relatively indirect measurement—greater engagement and greater retention.

However, third-party advantage scores can also be one such indicator providing longitudinal data across different groups. But ultimately, it’s difficult for a company to grade itself against those you serve.

Is a growth mentality necessary in our discipline?
Think of an insight as the seed that must grow into an action.  And, taken one step further, it’s really part of the insights group’s role to cultivate that seed and ensure adoption.  That takes a growth mindset and iterative behaviors where a company builds off what was learned versus “completing” the process and calling it a day. 

It’s also about collaborating, listening, and affirming.  There are researchers throughout most organizations and getting all perspectives aligned helps all disciplines do a better job on behalf of their customers and each other.

Is there any group or team inside your organization who you view as a “co-pilot” in your growth?
Because they know the business so well, placing an idea in front of analysts and hearing their perspectives will bring clarity to any situation.  Taking your thoughts to the real estate team who has mapping data that integrates a lot of information in one place means plotting ideas against things like sales and drive times.  They are also very future-oriented, working years ahead of ground breakings. 

Crowdsourcing is also highly effective for drawing in different groups and initiatives.

So, are there other ways we can define our roles, or the business we’re in?
Bridge builders.  Building bridges and connections to other places in the organization to help build buy-in for whatever it is the group is trying to understand.

Hybrids. Insights team members originate from a lot of different backgrounds and bring diverse assets to the table.  Communications backgrounds mix with knowledge management and programming to capture information and storytelling so people can see the broader picture. Then there are folks who are great at visualization and working with data analytics pros.

Good stewards…of the world, for the customer, of the brand/product.

Human understanding.  Traditionally, that understanding has been focused exclusively towards the external customer and serving their needs. But now, so much of the job is understanding internal stakeholders as humans as well. Putting the two together is where true customer centricity happens.