If finance directors are the bean counters of the boardroom, marketers are the gadflies. That, at least, is how colleagues like to paint them. But, much as satirists might regret it, the image of the marketing director who sips espresso over concept boards in adland, while the rest of the organisation gets down and dirty,is under threat.
With so many ways of allocating budgets, marketers are under pressure from chief executives to demonstrate the economic return from marketing investment. Add to that the knowledge that, while ad campaigns build brands, it is people who make or break relationships, and it becomes clear that marketing’s future lies as much in coaching customer-handling skills at the coal face as in trading insights in ad agencies.
For market researchers, used to seeing business through the lens of marketing, the shift in emphasis from brand perception to customer experience also creates a challenge: how to transform the insights gathered in research into something that staff on the frontline will feel motivated to put into practice.
Making insight meaningful for operational teams calls for more than good communication. At the root of the matter lies a fundamental disconnection between the view from the control tower of head office and the everyday reality of life on the ground.
“The traditional customer satisfaction survey is done from the centre as a performance audit,” says Insight Exchange founder and Market Research Society spokesperson Simon Lidington. “Ironically, when you talk to frontline staff, they really don’t see these studies as something that has much to do with them, or as information that might help them to improve what they do.”
To reverse the situation, researchers have to put operational needs before the needs of policy makers in corporate headquarters. Here, two scenarios are possible.
In the first, the marketing team co-ordinates the research programme, but ensures that frontline interests are catered for, by seeking input from operational managers. In the second, operational managers take the lead in commissioning and designing research. Either way, there has to be more emphasis on market researchers sharing their expertise across departmental boundaries. Lidington says: “Market research has always been the handmaiden to marketing, but there are strong arguments for saying that market researchers should have clients throughout the organisation.”
Research that is designed to be immediately actionable by frontline staff, rather than geared towards shaping policy over the longer term, parts company with research convention. One of the most significant departures concerns personal attribution.
Traditionally, customers have taken part in research anonymously. The downside of anonymity is that it stops the direct experience of unhappy customers, or for that matter delighted ones, coming to the attention of the organisation. Research that has performance improvement as its objective overcomes this problem by treating participants in surveys as customers with known identities, rather than points of data on a spreadsheet.
Richard George is business development director at Golley Slater, a company typically from outside the research sector market as conventionally defined, that specialises in performance-oriented research. “If a customer says he has issues that haven’t been resolved, the tele-researcher can click a button that automatically escalates the matter to someone in the supplier organisation who can sort the problem out,” he says.
But the new operationally-driven approach to research isn’t just about making peace with irate customers.
In addition to respondent anonymity, conventional tracking studies suffer, in an operational sense, from two defects. The first is the lengthiness of the reporting cycle which can lag marketplace events by anything up to three months. The second is what Lidington terms “the high level of generality” of tracking studies which provide information at national or, at best, regional level. This may be enough if all that you want is a top-down overview of how the company is doing. But it is no help at all at the base of the organisation, where the goal is to improve the performance of local teams, dealers and, ultimately, individuals.
One possible alternative is a system along the lines of the survey-based performance improvement programme that Grass Roots operates for its clients. The surveys are conducted soon after the customer has received a service or made a purchase. If the client requires it, the results – which include verbatim comments, as well as numerical scores – are broken back to teams and individual agents and posted, daily, on a Web-based micro-site for authorised personnel to view.
Grass Roots executive board director for measurement Nigel Cover says: “Knowing that the national score for customer service is 79.8% doesn’t help you as an individual agent in a call centre. What you want to know is what your customers think and what, personally, you could do better.”
Being able to see how customers rate the service given by an agent in a call centre, or a dealer in a network, can have profound repercussions. Used imaginatively, performance data allows managers to spot where staff would benefit from coaching and, conversely, to recognise and reward employees who handled a customer exceptionally well. Used ineptly, it becomes a stick for bullying and threatening people to push up productivity. This, ultimately, leads to low morale and high rates of staff turnover.
Just a blip?
For performance data to contribute positively to business improvement, two things are necessary. First, agents and their line managers must be able to interpret the significance, or otherwise, of trends and blips in performance scores and know how to handle verbatim comments. This is where professional market researchers have a role to play in sharing their expertise with operational teams who may have little, or no, experience of working with survey data.
Second, the data has to be presented in a style that is right for the client. This means adopting different presentation styles for different audiences. “For the boardroom it’s a serious conversation about overall performance and business profitability; whereas in the centre there’s more attention to the detail of balanced score cards and bonus policy,” says Cover. At the grass roots, the trick is to have a message which is simple and motivating. “It’s about saying well done. Here’s a reward. Do it again and you’ll get another.”
Simple motivating messages are welcome in the boardroom, where time is of the essence, as much as on the operational frontline. But, as market researchers are the first to admit, the traditional debrief is neither simple nor inspiring.
Paul Thomas, director at Incite Marketing Planning, like many critical of the status quo, lays the blame on the tyranny of the power-point presentation. “It’s as if an informal currency has taken hold that translates the monetary value of the project into a certain thickness of document and number of slides.” The result of this, he says, is that the things which senior managers really need to hear often get buried in “the glorification of the data.” So how might market research debriefs pack a greater punch?
One way of getting a message to hit home is to allow consumers, with opinions to share, to deliver the message for you. Thomas says: “Most of us have been in the position of delivering percentages and data to a room of blank faces. Then you show a video clip of a consumer and there’s an instant connection.” At the same time, presentations would generally benefit from being shorter. And audiences would be more likely to sit up if the key messages were placed upfront, rather than tagged on behind the data as an afterthought.
How messages are expressed makes a huge difference to how they are heard and understood. Just as market researchers must adapt their presentational style for the shop floor, so researchers addressing senior executives need to speak the language of business. The lingua franca of corporations the world over has an impact on the bottom line. But how that impact is best communicated differs from industry to industry.
“Most industries have their own currencies that they deal in,” says HPI Research senior partner Juliet Strachan. As an example, in the telecoms sector, she highlights average revenue per user (ARPU). “If you can get hold of that terminology and cite the implications of your research in those terms, it makes what you are saying immediately more relevant and accessible.” But is the familiar debrief format the best medium for busy business people?
Strachan makes the point that where debriefs used to be one-way presentations, what clients expect more and more is live discussions in which ideas are chewed over and the possible implications for business strategy thrashed out. The trend is particularly characteristic of younger, less hierarchical, companies. This puts the onus on market researchers to understand not only the commercial significance of their findings, but also the culture of their clients.
“To bring research to life, you have to understand the culture and the language of the board that you are dealing with,” says Strachan. “If what they want is something interactive and engaging, it’s critical that you don’t go in with ten formal bullet points.”
Understanding consumers is the core business of market research. But, to turn that understanding into something that makes a difference to business success, market researchers need also to understand their clients.