Turn Cus­tomer In­sights Into Growth

Most lead­ers rec­og­nize the im­por­tance of un­der­stand­ing their cus­tomers. Why, then, do so many con­tinue to over­look change sig­nals?

Rotman Management Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By C. Bar­ton, L. Koslow, R.dhar, S. Chad­wick, M.reeves and F. Lang

DE­SPITE THEIR BEST IN­TEN­TIONS TO FO­CUS on cus­tomer needs, many com­pa­nies spend most of their time look­ing in­ward. If you are not con­vinced of this, try this ex­per­i­ment: In your next in­ter­nal meet­ing, di­vide a piece of pa­per in two. On the left side, record each men­tion of an in­ter­nal topic, such as fi­nan­cial or op­er­a­tional per­for­mance, plans, met­rics, em­ploy­ees or cul­ture; on the right side, record each dis­cus­sion of an ex­ter­nal topic, such as com­pe­ti­tion, tech­nol­ogy, in­no­va­tion, so­cial me­dia or cus­tomer needs and wants. If your ‘in­tro­verted’ score is higher than your ‘ex­tro­verted’ score — keep read­ing.

Con­sumer-fac­ing com­pa­nies in de­vel­oped economies have ex­pe­ri­enced lit­tle to no growth since the global re­ces­sion of 2008. As a re­sult, the smartest of the bunch are now in­creas­ingly look­ing out­ward, try­ing to spur growth by turn­ing to new sources of cus­tomer in­for­ma­tion — ‘struc­tured’ batches of Big Data such as on­line be­hav­iour and ‘un­struc­tured’ data such as so­cial me­dia and call cen­tre con­ver­sa­tions.

In ad­di­tion, these com­pa­nies are ex­per­i­ment­ing with pre­dic­tive meth­ods for an­tic­i­pat­ing cus­tomer be­hav­iour and evolv­ing an in­ter­nal cus­tomer in­sight (CI) func­tion that can pro­vide rel­e­vant rec­om­men­da­tions and on­go­ing ex­e­cu­tion sup­port.

Un­for­tu­nately, our re­search finds that most com­pa­nies strug­gle to make CI more than just a tra­di­tional mar­ket re­search op­er­a­tion. In this ar­ti­cle we will look at the chal­lenges and ben­e­fits of in­te­grat­ing CI into your core pro­cesses.

Rewiring Your Cus­tomer In­sight Func­tion

Rapidly-chang­ing tech­nol­ogy is hav­ing dis­rup­tive ef­fects on con­sumer be­hav­iour. Shop­ping is now in­te­grated into con­sumers’ daily ac­tiv­i­ties, be­fore and af­ter tra­di­tional re­tail hours, and the shop­ping habits of Mil­len­ni­als, for ex­am­ple, are quite dif­fer­ent from those of older gen­er­a­tions. Mo­bile apps are gen­er­at­ing large vol­umes of new data from sources such as on­line be­hav­iour pat­terns, so­cial me­dia, user re­views, ge­olo­ca­tion data and mo­bile pay­ments. Con­sumer de­mand for in­for­ma­tion, ‘new­ness’ and in­ter­ac­tions with brands is in­creas­ing, as is the abil­ity of brands and re­tail­ers to an­tic­i­pate the needs of in­di­vid­ual cus­tomers. As a re­sult, sec­tors that once were pre­dictable and sta­ble — and that

Se­nior ex­ec­u­tives agree that cus­tomer in­sight (CI) is crit­i­cal to ac­cel­er­at­ing growth.

once could have sur­vived with a more in­ter­nal fo­cus — have be­come more volatile and un­cer­tain. In this en­vi­ron­ment, com­pa­nies must re­write — in­deed, re­wire — their CI ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

In a 2016 Bos­ton Con­sult­ing Group sur­vey, 45 CEOS, pres­i­dents, busi­ness unit lead­ers and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cers in a va­ri­ety of sec­tors said they con­sider ‘cus­tomer and growth ob­jec­tives’ to be the top pri­or­i­ties for their com­pa­nies, fol­lowed by ‘op­er­a­tional ex­cel­lence’, ‘share­holder value cre­ation’ and ‘cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence’. More than 75 per cent of the se­nior ex­ec­u­tives over­all — and 100 per cent from com­pa­nies with more than US$5 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enue — said CI was crit­i­cal to ac­cel­er­at­ing growth. When asked what ca­pa­bil­i­ties their com­pa­nies needed to de­velop, re­spon­dents cited CI and busi­ness de­vel­op­ment as the top two; ad­vanced an­a­lyt­ics was also an im­por­tant fo­cus, rep­re­sented in three of the top ten cat­e­gories.

Sur­pris­ingly, many or­ga­ni­za­tions have a long way to go. In fact, they have barely evolved in the years since BCG’S 2009 bench­mark­ing study [“The Con­sumer’s Voice — Can Your Com­pany Hear It?”, avail­able on­line]. In late 2015, BCG’S Cen­tre for Cus­tomer In­sight, in part­ner­ship with Cam­biar and the Yale School of Man­age­ment, up­dated that orig­i­nal study to in­clude 640 re­spon­dents from 90 cross-sec­tor en­ter­prises. More than 60 per cent of the par­tic­i­pat­ing com­pa­nies re­ported an­nual rev­enue of at least $5 bil­lion, and about 70 per cent op­er­ate glob­ally.

The pat­terns of mat­u­ra­tion that we iden­ti­fied in 2009. were still rel­e­vant. We found that CI groups move through four de­vel­op­men­tal stages.

STAGE 1: TRA­DI­TIONAL MAR­KET RE­SEARCH PROVIDER. At this stage, CI is mostly tac­ti­cal and re­search ori­ented, fo­cused on un­cov­er­ing trends of sales of ex­ist­ing prod­ucts and ser­vices, largely in ex­ist­ing chan­nels and ge­o­graphic lo­ca­tions. The CI group works on a project ba­sis to pro­duce data in re­sponse to line man­agers’ re­quests. It is lim­ited in bud­get, head count, and scope of in­flu­ence within the or­ga­ni­za­tion, and it re­ceives lim­ited se­nior ex­ec­u­tive sup­port. The CI func­tion’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­cen­trate on stud­ies or project re­sults that tar­get a nar­row au­di­ence, such as the man­agers who com­mis­sioned the re­search.

STAGE 2: BUSI­NESS CON­TRIB­U­TOR. For a CI func­tion at this stage, re­search tends to have a real-time fo­cus on short-term in­no­va­tions such as pack­ag­ing, form and flavour ex­ten­sions, pric­ing, and pro­mo­tions. The group con­cen­trates on trans­lat­ing cus­tomer in­sights into busi­ness rec­om­men­da­tions. Stud­ies build on one another to start to form bod­ies of work and broad per­spec­tives.

A func­tion at this stage typ­i­cally has ac­tive sup­port from the most se­nior mar­keter in the com­pany, as well as greater ac­cess to se­nior and busi­ness-unit (BU) lead­ers; how­ever, busi­ness lead­ers gen­er­ally set pri­or­i­ties. Sig­nif­i­cant parts of the CI bud­get may ex­ist out­side the func­tion’s con­trol, and the group’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion on the ex­ec­u­tive team and its ex­po­sure to the Board are lim­ited.

STAGE 3: STRATE­GIC IN­SIGHT PART­NER. At this stage, se­nior ex­ec­u­tives be­lieve cus­tomer in­sights should guide most com­mer­cial busi­ness de­ci­sions, and the CI func­tion is a strate­gic part­ner and trusted ad­vi­sor to the line. In ad­di­tion to spe­cial­ized re­search skills, CI team mem­bers demon­strate crit­i­cal think­ing, a will­ing­ness to chal­lenge ideas, eco­nomic and strate­gic un­der­stand­ing, and judg­ment. An ex­ec­u­tive team mem­ber—who is not the chief mar­keter—cham­pi­ons strate­gic re­search, and the CI team works with line man­age­ment to trans­late cus­tomer knowl­edge into key busi­ness de­ci­sions. To­gether, the CI team and line man­agers form the be­gin­ning of a learn­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion that be­comes in­creas­ingly ca­pa­ble of an­tic­i­pat­ing cus­tomers’ needs.

STAGE 4: SOURCE OF COM­PET­I­TIVE AD­VAN­TAGE. This stage re­mains elu­sive for al­most all com­pa­nies. At this level, the CI func­tion is fo­cused on new-to-the-world in­no­va­tion, fore­sight and pre­dic­tive in­quiry. CI is used in busi­ness de­ci­sions and core pro­cesses be­yond mar­ket de­ci­sions, in­clud­ing re­search pri­or­i­ties, new prod­uct de­vel­op­ment, strate­gic plan­ning, M&A and port­fo­lio strat­egy, em­ployee en­gage­ment and com­pany brand­ing.

At this level, the CI team ex­erts the great­est con­trol over its bud­get. As one CI vice pres­i­dent re­marked, “We’re aim­ing for 100 per cent bud­get con­trol. We want to have vis­i­bil­ity of the to­tal spend and the abil­ity to trade off against higher value and higher-im­pact uses.” A func­tion at this stage pro­vides feed­back on rel­e­vant trends, of­fer­ing an in­de­pen­dent per­spec­tive on high-

pri­or­ity top­ics and cus­tomer pop­u­la­tions and spe­cial­iz­ing in in­no­va­tive method­olo­gies. Func­tional lead­ers play ex­ec­u­tive roles, such as head of strat­egy, an­a­lyt­ics, or mar­ket­ing, and they of­ten re­port di­rectly to the CEO.

One se­nior mar­keter said that for a team to reach stage four, the CI func­tion must be truly em­bed­ded with busi­ness de­ci­sion mak­ers, seen as a thought leader rather than only a project ex­ecu­tor or data provider, and ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing world-class strat­egy and guid­ance that is ac­tion­able.

How to Reach Stages 3 and 4

In our ini­tial study, only 10 per cent of com­pa­nies had CI func­tions at the third and fourth stages. De­spite par­tic­i­pants’ talk of ‘vi­sion’, ‘trans­for­ma­tion’, ‘re­struc­tur­ing’, and long ‘jour­neys’— and ris­ing ex­pec­ta­tions—the pace of change has been glacial: Our lat­est study found that only 20 per cent of com­pa­nies are now at stages 3 and 4.

Even when com­pa­nies adopt new func­tions and ca­pa­bil­i­ties that in­cor­po­rate Stage 3 el­e­ments — such as ad­vanced an­a­lyt­ics, dig­i­tal or so­cial me­dia mon­i­tor­ing — these groups seem to be anal­o­gous to tra­di­tional mar­ket re­search groups: They lack ex­ecu- tive sup­port, re­port low in the com­pany hi­er­ar­chy, have lim­ited in­ter­ac­tion with the line, are con­strained by small bud­gets and lit­tle bud­getary con­trol, are un­mea­sured in terms of re­turn on in­vest­ment, and of­fer nar­row ca­reer paths to team mem­bers.

Com­pa­nies with CI func­tions that do man­age to reach Stage 3 or 4 of­ten do well on ex­ter­nally-ver­i­fi­able out­comes, such as cus­tomer loy­alty and growth rates. Gen­er­ally, com­pa­nies with such func­tions are more likely to rec­og­nize CI’S ef­fec­tive­ness in busi­ness de­ci­sions and to mea­sure the re­turn on these in­vest­ments.

Specif­i­cally, ex­ec­u­tives we sur­veyed in com­pa­nies with Stage 3 func­tions were sig­nif­i­cantly more likely (by 15 per­cent­age points) than ex­ec­u­tives in com­pa­nies with less-ma­ture CI func­tions to think that these groups ma­te­ri­ally con­trib­ute to fi­nan­cial per­for­mance, that they put their com­pa­nies and BUS on faster growth tra­jec­to­ries (by nine per­cent­age points), and that they en­hance their com­pa­nies’ com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage (by 20 per­cent­age points).

All se­nior ex­ec­u­tives we sur­veyed whose CI func­tions had achieved Stage 4 agreed that CI puts com­pa­nies and BUS on faster growth tra­jec­to­ries, while 50 per cent said CI was ‘very crit­i­cal’ to growth. Fur­ther­more, 50 per cent of Stage 3 and

67 per cent of Stage 4 com­pa­nies try to mea­sure the ROI of CI in­vest­ments, and they re­port sig­nif­i­cantly higher sat­is­fac­tion—83 to 88 per cent—with CI’S ROI.

In com­pa­nies with Stage 3 or 4 func­tions, CI prac­ti­tion­ers and busi­ness line part­ners are much more closely aligned on the im­pact, value and im­por­tance of CI. As com­pa­nies progress through the stages, prac­ti­tion­ers and busi­ness line man­agers be­come in­creas­ingly sat­is­fied with their re­la­tion­ship. By Stage 4, the sat­is­fac­tion rate is 89 per cent. About 90 per cent of the ex­ec­u­tives in our study agreed that by Stage 3, line lead­ers pull CI into busi­ness de­ci­sions more than CI pushes its way in. As the line in­vites CI in, busi­ness part­ners’ sat­is­fac­tion with CI’S con­tri­bu­tions to busi­ness de­ci­sions in­creases, jump­ing to 90 per cent over­all in Stage 4.

Given these re­sults, we would ad­vise ex­ec­u­tive teams to ex­plic­itly re-eval­u­ate the ROI for CI func­tions that are mostly back­ward look­ing, de­scrip­tive, tac­ti­cal or con­fined to mar­ket­ing.

How to Get Started

Ex­ec­u­tive teams can take three steps to be­gin the process of reach­ing higher lev­els of CI ma­tu­rity:

1. CON­DUCT A DI­AG­NOS­TIC. In­ter­view stake­hold­ers, quan­ti­ta­tively bench­mark against peers, and ob­serve the ‘life’ of an in­sight through the parts of the or­ga­ni­za­tion and the pro­cesses in which it is iden­ti­fied, am­pli­fied, gains in­flu­ence, and has im­pact — or is damp­ened and dies out.


Ap­ply prac­ti­cal cre­ativ­ity tech­niques to achieve shared self-aware­ness; iden­tify ‘magic points’, in which the CI func­tion de­liv­ers on ex­ec­u­tives’ as­pi­ra­tions, and ‘tragic points’, in which CI falls short of its po­ten­tial.

3. CRAFT AN AC­TION PLAN. De­velop a strat­egy for chang­ing ex­ec­u­tives’ in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive ac­tion.

Com­pa­nies se­ri­ous about at­tain­ing the high­est stages of CI ma­tu­rity should set a tar­get of no more than 24 months. Longer ini­tia­tives do not sig­nal a suf­fi­cient com­mit­ment to change and may get bogged down, lead­ing to dis­trac­tion and change fa­tigue.

Firms whose CEOS and ex­ec­u­tives are not com­mit­ted to a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent CI op­er­at­ing model should not un­der­take the hard work of CI trans­for­ma­tion. In com­pa­nies with CEOS who do sup­port the tran­si­tion, how­ever, se­nior ex­ec­u­tives should be up­dated with reg­u­lar re­ports from a steer­ing or strat­egy com­mit­tee. They should cre­ate an ‘ac­tivist’ project man­age­ment struc­ture that en­sures func­tional trans­for­ma­tion through trans­parency, a ‘sin­gle source of the truth’, a fo­cus on re­sults in­stead of the com­ple­tion of ac­tiv­i­ties, ac­count­abil­ity, ac­cel­er­ated de­ci­sion mak­ing, and in­ter­ven­tions when change ini­tia­tives are off track.

Based on our ex­pe­ri­ence, com­pa­nies should pri­or­i­tize three types of cross-func­tional ini­tia­tives and iden­tify ex­ec­u­tive spon­sors and day-to-day lead­ers for each.

Fund­ing the Jour­ney. Ini­tia­tives in this cat­e­gory fund the trans­for­ma­tion and the ex­ter­nal sup­port it re­quires by clos­ing per­for­mance gaps. Ex­am­ples in­clude con­sol­i­dat­ing mar­ket re­search sup­pli­ers; re­view­ing sup­plier pric­ing and terms; cut­ting or re­al­lo­cat­ing tac­ti­cal, back­ward-look­ing, de­scrip­tive, low-roi project spend­ing; and at­tack­ing du­plica­tive ex­penses and teams.

Win­ning in the Medium Term. These ini­tia­tives, which re­quire more lead time, are the build­ing blocks of the func­tional strat­egy. Ex­am­ples in­clude build­ing knowl­edge man­age­ment sys­tems; mea­sur­ing the re­turn on CI spend­ing; de­vel­op­ing learn­ing agen­das for ex­ec­u­tive teams and boards; ex­per­i­ment­ing with data sources and method­olo­gies; and en­abling CI to use strate­gic plan­ning and bud­get tools.

Or­ga­niz­ing for Growth. Ini­tia­tives of this type en­able the func­tion to ex­e­cute and sus­tain the trans­for­ma­tion. Ex­am­ples in­clude ex­pand­ing roles for the most tal­ented em­ploy­ees; re­work­ing job specifications, form­ing ex­ec­u­tive re­cruit­ing part­ner­ships, and tar­get­ing new tal­ent pools; de­vel­op­ing ca­reer paths; de­vel­op­ing ro­ta­tion pro­grams for fu­ture lead­ers; es­tab­lish­ing func­tional train­ing and de­vel­op­ment pro­grams and ty­ing func­tional com­pen­sa­tion to per­for­mance.

De­vel­op­ing a truly ex­ter­nal ori­en­ta­tion is a strug­gle for many com­pa­nies. Tak­ing a hard look at the ma­tu­rity of the CI func­tion may be a good place to start. But a CI func­tion that’s treated sim­ply as a provider of tra­di­tional mar­ket re­search can’t be­come a strate­gic player on its own. The ef­fort to tap this over­looked source of com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage must be­gin at the high­est lev­els of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, with ex­ec­u­tives set­ting the tone for the process. By mea­sur­ing, in­ter­pret­ing, and ap­ply­ing knowl­edge from cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ences — and us­ing this in­for­ma­tion to fuel de­ci­sions — com­pa­nies can el­e­vate both their CI func­tion and their po­si­tion in the mar­ket­place.

Fight­ing Or­ga­ni­za­tional In­tro­ver­sion

How do com­pa­nies end up so iso­lated, even from their own cus­tomers? We have found that large, es­tab­lished com­pa­nies tend to rely too much on ex­ist­ing busi­ness mod­els and ne­glect to ex­plore new pos­si­bil­i­ties. As a re­sult, they gen­er­ate fu­ture growth op­tions at a much lower rate than smaller, younger com­pa­nies. We found that large, es­tab­lished com­pa­nies are about 20 per­cent­age points less ex­ploratory than their younger peers, and as a con­se­quence they un­der­per­form those peers by nearly six points in sales growth and more than two points in long-term to­tal share­holder re­turns.

For­tu­nately, this trend is not in­escapable. A mi­nor­ity of large, es­tab­lished firms man­ages to bal­ance ex­plo­ration and ex­ploita­tion. So, how can you avoid or re­verse the ten­dency to­wards in­tro­ver­sion? We of­fer the fol­low­ing four tips for re­new­ing your ex­ter­nal ori­en­ta­tion.

TIP 1: CAP­TURE EX­TER­NAL CHANGE SIG­NALS. Get­ting the right in­for­ma­tion in the door is the crucial first step: In­vest in cap­tur­ing gran­u­lar, real-time, and im­plicit data on cus­tomer trends

and pref­er­ences. Ex­plore new meth­ods, such as bio­met­ric, ob­ser­va­tional, and neu­ral anal­y­sis. Look be­yond the ob­vi­ous: Ac­cess new and un­der-ex­ploited data sources such as so­cial me­dia and us­age data from smart prod­ucts. In other words, cre­ate not only a sig­nal cap­ture ca­pa­bil­ity but a ‘sig­nal ad­van­tage’ by do­ing it bet­ter or ear­lier than oth­ers.

TIP 2: EX­TRACT NOVEL IN­SIGHTS. Learn to ex­tract pat­terns from change sig­nals. Again, look be­yond the ob­vi­ous to cre­ate ad­van­tage by lever­ag­ing new tech­niques such as nat­u­ral lan­guage pro­cess­ing to mine un­struc­tured data and ma­chine learn­ing to sep­a­rate sig­nal from noise. Cre­ate eas­ily us­able data vi­su­al­iza­tion to fa­cil­i­tate the de­tec­tion of pat­terns and the for­ma­tion of in­sights that are not ob­vi­ous. Again, strive to do so not just suf­fi­ciently, but bet­ter than the com­pe­ti­tion can.

TIP 3: USE IN­SIGHTS TO DRIVE KEY VALUE-ADDING PRO­CESSES SUCH AS IN­NO­VA­TION AND RE­SOURCE AL­LO­CA­TION. Cus­tomer data and in­sights should be or­ga­nized so that they are eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble to all parts of the com­pany and can be in­te­grated into de­ci­sion mak­ing be­yond the sales and mar­ket­ing func­tion. For ex­am­ple, cus­tomer in­sights can be in­cluded as a for­mal de­ci­sion fac­tor for strate­gic plan­ning, port­fo­lio strat­egy and re­source al­lo­ca­tion, and they can be in­te­grated into stage-gate re­quire­ments for in­no­va­tion.


Com­pa­nies need to in­crease their ‘sur­face area’ by ex­pos­ing in­ter­nal func­tions to ex­ter­nal re­al­i­ties. Highly adap­tive com­pa­nies like Alibaba un­der­stand this in­tu­itively and set up flex­i­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions to al­low for the con­stant match­ing of in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal. As Jack Ma, the com­pany’s founder and chair­man, has said: “In the in­for­ma­tion era, change is the best equi­lib­rium.”

We can also look at Ama­zon as a best-prac­tice ex­am­ple of an ex­ter­nal ori­en­ta­tion. Cus­tomers are the top pri­or­ity ev­ery­where in the or­ga­ni­za­tion, start­ing with the CEO. As Jeff Be­zos has said: “We see our cus­tomers as in­vited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job, ev­ery day, to make ev­ery im­por­tant as­pect of the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence a lit­tle bit bet­ter.” This cus­tomer-cen­tric cul­ture is re­in­forced through for­mal per­for­mance met­rics, nearly 80 per cent of which are re­lated to cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence. Cus­tomer-cen­tric­ity is fur­ther sup­ported by well-in­te­grated in­for­ma­tion sys­tems, which are able to cap­ture, ex­plore and share in­sights through­out the firm.

In clos­ing

Over­com­ing in­tro­ver­sion is no easy feat, but it is im­per­a­tive for your or­ga­ni­za­tion’s long-term sur­vival. The ap­proach dis­cussed herein can pro­vide a start­ing point to in­crease your ex­ter­nal ori­en­ta­tion — which will en­able you to cap­ture the right in­for­ma­tion and use it more ef­fec­tively.

Chris­tine Bar­ton is a Se­nior Part­ner and Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor in The Bos­ton Con­sult­ing Group’s Dal­las of­fice. Lara

Koslow is Global Leader of BCG’S Cen­tre for Cus­tomer In­sight and part of the firm’s global Mar­ket­ing, Sales & Pric­ing lead­er­ship team. Ravi Dhar is the Ge­orge Rogers Clark Pro­fes­sor of Man­age­ment and Mar­ket­ing and Di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Cus­tomer In­sights at the Yale School of Man­age­ment.

Si­mon Chad­wick is the Founder and Man­ag­ing Part­ner of Cam­biar. Martin Reeves is a Se­nior Part­ner and Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor in BCG’S New York of­fice and Di­rec­tor of BCG’S Henderson In­sti­tute. Fred­erik Lang is a Con­sul­tant in BCG’S Copen­hagen of­fice. For more BCG con­tent, visit bcg­per­spec­tives.com.

Large, es­tab­lished com­pa­nies are about 20 per­cent­age points less ex­ploratory than their younger peers.



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