Head of stakeholder management
2005 Head of stakeholder management, TNS
2003 Research manager, TNS Financial & Professional Services
The roots of fulfilment
Companies can claim an advantage through customer satisfaction research, and by tackling the root causes of poor service. But remember, the process is an ongoing one. By Rosemary Bayman
Stakeholder management accounts for a significant proportion of many clients’ research budgets. Typically the main area of focus is customer satisfaction measurement, but increasingly clients are aware of the need to incorporate other stakeholder groups – such as employees, opinion leaders, and business partners – into the equation.
A growing demand for accountability means that clients and agencies alike are having to become more focused on justifying this research spend. Return on investment is a key concern at the moment, but we can only see a return if we are consistently taking action based on the insights generated. It is all too easy to invest resources in setting up a large customer satisfaction tracker, only to see it monotonously ticking over and producing the same, tired charts with an extra data point added each new wave.
Failing to act is not only a waste of investment, it is also unfair on the customer, because a market research survey is in itself a customer touchpoint. Of course, the agency has to make that touch as comfortable and pleasant for the customer as possible – but we also have to follow through on it. If market researchers collect responses and nothing is done with them, the customer has every right to feel disgruntled.
The challenge therefore is to design a research programme that can be translated into meaningful actions. It is much easier to measure and monitor – to simply track the numbers over time – than it is to manage customer and other stakeholder relationships by acting on information. Below, I explore some key points of best practice that can ensure a more effective stakeholder management programme.
Get buy-in from key personnel
Regardless of the quality of the research, it will not be acted on unless the client-side users understand the methodology and are hungry to use its outputs. Running a “discovery” workshop at the start of the project, with the main owners of the research, will introduce the methodology to the people who matter, and encourage them to buy into the process. It allows the research agency not only to design the inputs correctly, but also to interpret the results better. It is one of the most important contributions that the agency can make to the project.
Find the decisive areas to action Most customer satisfaction studies incorporate analysis to identify which are the most important attributes that need improvement (that is, which attributes have the greatest impact on the overall customer relationship). However, satisfying customers is not enough. TNS benchmarks show that, of the key indicators of customer retention, competitive advantage is the hardest dimension on which to succeed – rather than, for example, satisfaction, recommendation or even repurchase. This is particularly the case in the UK. Providers need to identify what will give them a competitive advantage over time; a successful long-term strategy involves finding the key drivers of the future, not just of today.
To do this, we must separate the drivers of customer retention into two categories. The first comprises those drivers where underperformance will seriously undermine the customer relationship but where overperformance does not differentiate, and so will not create an advantage beyond mere satisfaction. We call these lag effects. A typical lag effect would be ease of contact, such as length of waiting time in a shop or at a call centre. On the other hand, lead effects – which make up the second category – are attributes that are harder to excel on (and most providers fail to do so), but excellence here will result in greater overall gains. Understanding the difference between the two is key; assuming performance is satisfactory on lag effects, the focus should be on the leaders.
Conduct effective root cause analysis
Moving from the attributes in question to the actions to take is a difficult process. If the root causes of weaknesses are not correctly identified, time and money may be channelled into the wrong areas.
For example, several different factors could underlie a key weakness with regard to “customer- facing staff showing empathy” (a likely lead effect). Are the staff the wrong profile – meaning that the company needs to recruit differently? Do the staff have the potential to show empathy, but lack the skills – so do they need training? Perhaps they already have the skills but lack the time to focus on the customer, in which case the company could implement a better division between organisational tasks and customer-facing work.
Even with excellent sector expertise and client understanding, the research agency cannot guess these answers. As at the design stage, the client and agency need to work closely together to understand root causes of weaknesses and then plan remedial action. At this action-planning stage, it is crucial to get beyond the first level cause. A classic first level cause is lack of time, but it does not lead to useful actions: employing more staff is rarely a suitable action. Here we can also make use of “Six Sigma thinking” to look at variation in performance (rather than simply performance levels), to understand whether people factors or processes are causing the problem.
Hold people accountable for change
The best way to make sure that the identified actions happen is to hold the right people accountable through the use of targets. Lack of accountability is a major problem in companies that do not execute well. Setting targets based on research key performance indicators will give individuals the incentive to change. However, it is important that managers are set targets that they can influence – for example, a functional or local manager (such as the head of the call centre, or manager of a particular region) should be allocated measures which are relevant to their area alone.
Hunt for competitive advantage
As time and the customer satisfaction tracker move on, the market will also move on, as the competition catches up. Lead effects turn to lag effects, and so providers need to look for the next “big thing”. However, these will not simply emerge from the existing questionnaire inputs. To track performance on the same attribute set is to control, not to create. In order to lead and excel, the attributes must be updated to reflect the market as it is now and as it might be in the future – therefore the initial discovery workshop should be repeated, in full, every year.
Managing stakeholder groups
Many companies already apply similar research techniques to other stakeholder groups, such as employees and internal or external suppliers. The next step is to join up these results into a meaningful whole. At the macro level, the balanced scorecard can show how employee commitment, customer retention and internal efficiency work together to create profit. At the micro level, comparing attributes between surveys may show that weaknesses in the customer relationship are actually caused by internal issues such as low morale, or poor service provided by an internal department. This integrated approach is very powerful, and on the research agency side, we believe it is our “next big thing”.