We recently hosted our first-ever Market Research and Customer Insights Council at the 2018 E Source Forum. After a morning of presentations on smartphone ethnography, immersive environments, journey mapping, and transactional surveys to help participants evolve their practice, I led a discussion on how we, as customer insights professionals, can get buy-in from senior leadership and have a real impact on our organizations.
Getting leadership to listen, getting a “seat at the table,” becoming a trusted advisor—these were all top of mind to the half-dozen researchers I spoke with when building the day’s agenda. The issue is not new. In fact, I’ve been hearing the same concerns my entire career. We might have the greatest data out there, but it’s all for naught if we can’t get leadership to listen.
First, what does it mean to have an impact? I contend that having an impact means that our data and insights are consulted when critical business decisions are made. This doesn’t mean that our recommendations are always followed. (Think for a second of all the partnerships you’ve ever been in—has any partner always acted on your advice?) But if your leadership team brings you into the conversation, reviews and understands the data, and asks for your recommendations—whether or not they act on everything you suggest is beside the point.
One thing that we as researchers need to remember is that when making a business decision, your stakeholders are receiving advice and data from multiple sources within the organization. In addition, they are likely weighing political factors (both internal and external), regulatory concerns, cost implications, organizational precedent, and more. We are one component of a larger ecosystem.
Dedicate time to listening
At the same time, there are basic steps you can take to develop internal research “champions” and have an influence on leadership. First, what not to do: Don’t start with your own research agenda. Don’t start by telling; start by actively listening. Before you spec out a single project or even write one survey question, you need to have conversations with stakeholders and build relationships. You need to understand individual responsibilities and the short-term and long-term business decisions each needs to make. The time you put in up front—the time you spend listening to your colleagues, developing relationships and understanding the business context—is as important as data to your ability to influence decisions. It may be even more important, in the end.
Tailor your insights
The consequence of dedicating time up-front to understanding the business context in which your research occurs is that your recommendations to stakeholders become focused, tailored, and actionable. So, if you haven’t already, jettison the data dump. As researchers, we need to be rigorous, thoughtful, and innovative, but we don’t need to bombard leadership with every piece of data we’ve found. When you waste their time with information that doesn't apply, stakeholders will believe you don’t understand their specific business needs and they’ll be less likely to include you in future discussions. Again, your insights need to be tailored to the business decisions each needs to make. What they’re thinking is “How does your information help me make a decision? Do you even know the decision I need to make? And why should I care?” Yes, you need to carry out great research and tell stories, not just present data, but it’s not enough if you don’t understand the business context leadership is working within.
Take the long view
In my experience, the value of market research plays out over time. Market research isn’t a silver bullet—don’t expect to gain substantive knowledge of customer behavior, for instance, from one research project. One project is just that—one project; deep understanding accumulates over time. Therefore, when you build your research agenda with leadership, think in three-year terms, not quarterly terms. Taking the long view lets you address both tactical and strategic business questions.
Additionally, and this is just as important, get comfortable with repetition. When you do have data or recommendations for leadership, don’t expect saying it once will be enough. Expect to revisit your observations again and again. Many times in my career I’ve communicated what I thought was a great insight only to have it fall flat—yet months later I find myself part of a conversation where that exact information is what my colleague is looking for. Timing is crucial—always know what’s important to people and pull out that perfect data point from a year ago. You never know when someone will be open and ready to act on your research.
I recommend two recent pieces that touch on some of the same issues I’ve raised:
- Influence not Insights: Focusing on Impact, not ROI, Bruce Olson, surveymagazine.org, August 2018
- How Clients and Vendors Can Build Trust and Get to Work, Julia Eisenberg, Quirks, September 2018