The insight world’s biggest challenge is group-think

I was at an event for senior insight people recently. I’d guess we were a group of around one hundred and fifty to two hundred people. At the beginning of the day, sat in a lecture hall waiting for the keynote speaker to kick off the event, I was struck by our homogeneity as a group. A room full of middle class, urbanite men and women with a similar worldview: curious, thinkers, problem-solvers. All great qualities, but all a bit predictable too (me included, by the way).

Putting aside the general point that business needs to get better at diversifying its workforce to more accurately reflect the pool of talent and its base of customers, I asked myself whether this matters. After all, insight people are a channel through which understanding of people ‘out there’ makes its way to people ‘in here’. The channel doesn’t need to mirror the ‘out there’… or the ‘in here’. It just needs to deliver effectively.

What matters is whether this homogeneity in profile leads to homogeneity in thinking. And I’m afraid there is evidence that it does.

Back a couple of months we were working with a client on their pricing communications strategy. We’d conducted our own in-depth research and – given that there were parallel work streams relevant to our work – had the opportunity to see the work of other agencies as presented to the business.

I was struck by feedback on one, significant piece of research. It focused on the customer segment which was struggling financially; those most likely to be squeezed by rising, post-sterling-devaluation prices. The agency’s analysis was more a middle class interpretation of the reality of these people’s lives than a real reflection. It was well intentioned, contained lots of ‘insights’ about how the client brand could help people on low incomes, but entirely lacked any truths about what it felt like to be at society’s margins.

Rather than an exercise in satisfying curiosity, it was the result of an exercise in group-think. Insight agency staff working with the client’s insight team thinking in comfortable and obvious ways about people who were nothing like them.

The problem is with this type of group-think is that by the time it reaches C-Suite it’s anodyne to the point of being useless in its ability to transform senior-level thinking: give low income people cheap stuff, give them brands at prices they can afford so they don’t feel left out, give them everything they need under one roof so they don’t need to shop around. This isn’t insight, it’s the self-satisfied status quo, and it won’t open up business opportunity.

Compare this to some brand strategy work we did last year for a client whose customers also tend to be less well off. Our aim was to completely change the way that people ‘in here’ think, feel about and relate to people ‘out there’.

First, we identified existing, internal group-think: what were the assumptions that people ‘in here’ made about their customers? What did they think the differences were between them and the people they served?

Second, we challenged these assumptions: how was internal group-think different to the reality of life ‘out there’?

Finally, we went out of our way to uncover what we all had in common: C-Level, management, colleagues across the business and customers. In which ways were we all exactly the same?

The project was difficult, hard-work. At times it felt like we were bearing responsibility for changing a business culture that was resistant. But it worked. This approach now drives a completely transformed, and transformative, strategy

The problem is that group-think is easy. A path of least resistance. In order to avoid it, you have to acknowledge its existence. You have to be prepared to constantly challenge even your own most deeply held assumptions. This takes courage.

Amongst all that restless questioning that insight people do so well should be this question, asked on a weekly basis: how do I avoid slipping into the trap of group-think?

Our most recently won client put it succinctly when explaining why they’d decided to work with us on a major project, despite us having no prior experience with them or their marketplace:

‘You were up against the specialist consultancy in our sector. But we were worried that we would get the same old stuff from them. We wanted to challenge ourselves and to be challenged. We wanted some new thinking. Your approach wasn’t what we were expecting. Your team is a group of interesting people with very different backgrounds, outside of research. You deliberately work across industry sectors to keep your perspective fresh. And we liked that you do some interesting things to constantly challenge yourselves. We got the feeling that you’re not happy just to be comfortable.’

It’s not what you know about your customers that counts, it’s how you feel about them

Twice in my professional career I’ve witnessed groups of people who work for household brands laughing at their customers.

The first was an investment business. Laughter was caused by the fact that they’d developed a product designed to adhere to regulatory requirements but which customers didn’t fully understand. The product looked like a great deal, but it wasn’t. It heavily benefited the business and worked against the interests of the customer. They found this very funny.

The second was at a major consuming-facing business where we were asked to observe an internally-run workshop. Despite being warned several times by a senior person (possibly because they were aware that we – outsiders – were there) the majority in the room spent the best part of a couple of hours taking the piss out of their working-class customers: belittling, patronising and ridiculing them.

Twice in more than twenty years of working in insight-led consultancy is not a bad average. The vast majority of businesses I’ve worked with over that time, I believe, genuinely make efforts to understand their customers, respect them and try (often against a background of significant organisational and market challenge) to do their best by them. These two examples stand out precisely because they are rare.

Over those years I’ve come across a lot of people who have a pretty good understanding about their customers. They know stuff. They can pull on stats, high-level trends, they understand how customers think and behave as a group or groups. Lacking, though, is often a sense of what it feels like to be a customer: a direct, empathic connection with the ‘whole person’ rather than the part of the customer that engages with their brand.

Detachment, ironically, can be a feature of this knowledge, provided as it often is by quantitative data and qualitative research techniques that codify attitudes and behaviour.

Detachment can be as dangerous as ridicule. Because it’s easy to make bad decisions that appear to be based on knowledge, when you’re far away from the reality of a customer’s life.

That’s why, rather than simply understanding, you have to feel how your customers feel.

Innovative businesses have an instinct for this.

Feeling how your customers feel gets you to their fundamental problems and needs: significant, emotional, real-life. It motivates people within the business to solve these problems. And by solving these problems, a brand becomes truly meaningful in the lives of its customers.

Let me tell you another story.

We worked with the Board Member of a major UK business, part of the stakeholder team on a significant insight-led strategy programme. He (in common with everyone we worked with in the business) was hugely keen to make the emotional connection – not just develop a rational understanding – and to use feeling to drive brand strategy. This, by the way, in a cut-throat, highly competitive marketplace. The connection that he made with customers was so strong and deep that at one point, in a meeting relaying a story told to him by one of their customers, he was brought to tears. He really felt it.

This business built and implemented a very successful strategy. They balanced a genuine desire to offer a fair exchange of value with a determination to solve customers’ fundamental needs. All based on feeling. And it worked.

And the two businesses whose staff chose to laugh at their customers?

They were both subsequently hit hard by competition, by changing markets and by customers who got savvy to them: they leaked profit, shed staff and spent years in crisis mode. Now their customers are laughing at them.

Getting Closer to customers can be a waste of time and money

A prospective client asked us to look at a brief recently. They wanted our help in setting up a Customer Closeness Programme. We asked about the objectives: What did the organisation want to achieve? What behaviours were they looking to change amongst colleagues? Their response was:

‘We don’t want our people to do anything differently. We just want them to think differently.’

From a customer’s perspective, the fact that your staff think differently means nothing. Strategy and actions focused on delivering tangible benefits to them are what counts.

Customer Closeness programmes don’t work unless they form part of your framework for strategy development and implementation.

Somebody in an influential position in the business says, ‘We must get our people closer to our customers.’

This makes absolute sense.

So you build a Customer Closeness Programme.

You give it a cool name, develop a plan for interactive events through which staff meet customers, create a portal, and work with your communications or research agency to design a whole bunch of beautiful outputs – posters, cardboard cut-outs, insight walls, animations, newspapers. You measure the effectiveness of the programme by asking staff about how exposed they are to it and how it affects them in their role. You build up a picture of great energy and enthusiasm within the business, and share this at conferences and potentially win awards.

In reality, though, what changes from your customers’ perspective?

They don’t care whether your staff are ‘close to them’. They don’t care that they’re represented in your business using fabulously designed internal communications collateral. They don’t care that you run speed-dating events with them, watch them in focus groups, visit their homes or go shopping with them (except where they participate themselves). They certainly don’t care about conferences and awards.

The only thing customers care about is what you do for them.

Understanding is great. But it’s your customer-driven strategy and then the action that takes place as a result which makes a difference for customers. Customer Closeness Programmes often get so caught up (ironically) in being impactful from an internal perspective that they forget to be functional from an external, customer perspective.

The problem is that your programme is focused on process (albeit the process is great) rather than outcomes. Customer Closeness has become an end in itself rather than a means to achieve a business objective.

The hardest part is turning insights into ideas and ideas into actions in a consistent way.

A different client was frustrated with their existing Programme:

‘We do all this great work, run fantastic events in which colleagues interact directly with customers, but they go back to their desks and do the same old thing.

Their assumption was that the events and interactions they were running weren’t sufficiently inspiring. However, the real problem is that you can’t magically turn insights into action. You need a clear framework within which to do this. This takes time and effort to develop, test and implement. It’s just not realistic to expect a member of staff to be sufficiently inspired by even the best, most insightful customer interaction to go back to their desk and take transformative action.

If you don’t measure the right things, you won’t be able to see the impact on the business and customers.

Remember who your Programme is built for: customers not staff. Don’t get distracted by the pretty stuff. We came across an existing Programme recently. It was considered a resounding success because metrics existed which told the organisers how much staff valued it. However there were no business or customer metrics attached. No-one was able to say whether or how the Programme had created value for the organisation or the people it served.

Customer Closeness Programmes are a waste of time and money (unless you can clearly demonstrate that the one you’re running isn’t).

So next time someone influential in the business says: ‘We must get our people closer to our customers’ don’t just respond with the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘who’ of process.

Ask ‘why’ and ‘how’ of business strategy, implementation and outcomes. Why are we doing this? And how do we measure its value contribution to the business?


In a broadcast-me world, is listening a thing of the past?

I enjoy listening. I’ve made a career out of my natural curiosity. Socially as well as at work, I enjoy ‘collecting’ people – the stories they tell, the things they reveal about themselves, their motivations, their needs. I keep a kind of internal insight bank as an ongoing analysis of what I’ve seen and heard. It’s a bank I dip into in order to draw out meaning and implications for business and for life.

After a drinks party over Christmas, my wife complained that she’d got stuck chatting to someone who ‘just talked at me…. didn’t ask a single question. It was like being on the end of his Facebook feed.’

I know what she means; the way many people talk about themselves now has a social media inflection. Parties in particular mirror social networks – some friends, a whole bunch of acquaintances, then a lot more people you don’t really know but now have a connection with (as a potential audience). People can start to talk in lists. Conversation is a continuous, one-way broadcast. What works in the digital worlds of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or WhatsApp takes form in real life.

I’m not criticising the guy my wife got stuck with. A listener isn’t a better person than a broadcaster. It’s more that broadcasters miss out on so much because they don’t listen.

Listening is fun. You have to dig in to get underneath the broadcast-me content. That means breaking through the feed, interrupting and asking questions, cycling over the content and allowing repetition to reveal hidden truths. These conversations aren’t frustrating broadcast battles, they’re interesting and challenging – you’re hunting for gems.

Listening is interesting. People’s hidden stories are fascinating, enriching, inspiring and occasionally appalling. For example: the gut-wrenching story of an American mother, battling with dementia, pulling a gun on her father; the lost-family sadness and regret of a super-successful multi-millionaire; or the deeply held love of a couple for their dog.

Finally, and for me most importantly, listening connects us to other people and it connects them to us. We all enjoy being listened to; there’s something magnetic, addictive about being the full focus of someone else’s attention. The more you listen, the stronger the connection you create.

In a world that wants to broadcast, the most powerful thing you can do is listen.

Is it better to appear busy than to be productive?

I was in a race across Waterloo Bridge the other day.

Not an actual race, but a kind of proxy one. Whilst I was walking at a decent pace myself (on my way to a meeting), I realised I was being overtaken on both sides by suited men and women with a longer, more purposeful stride. Then across The Strand, along Kingsway, and passing Holborn Station around lunch-time, I cut my way through crowds of shaking hands and double-cheek-kisses, assignations sandwiched between the morning and afternoon rush-abouts at work. There was a consistent refrain in response to the ‘How are you?’s: ‘Busy…’ or more often ‘Ridiculously busy’ and sometimes ‘…run off my feet…’

Being seen to be busy is a kind of currency at work in the UK. It is ‘business’ after all.

The problem is that all that busyness doesn’t necessarily lead us anywhere. Aside from causing stress and anxiety, being in a constantly busy state doesn’t leave much time for thinking. It’s more important to be seen to be doing things than it is to be thinking about how to do them better.

Despite every effort otherwise, there is still too much focus on the inputs (the doing) rather than outputs (the results of doing). An outputs or results focus allows time for thinking – planning, working out how to do it, how to do it better, more efficiently and then getting whatever it is done more quickly and to a higher degree of quality. It’s about productivity.

So maybe while crossing Waterloo Bridge, rather than racing to get to the next thing to do, it would be better to slow down and use the time to think about how to do that next thing. Making time for thinking ultimately means spending less time doing, and doing what you do better. And at Holborn, rather than the ‘How are you?’s being answered by ‘Busy’, one day they might be answered by ‘Productive’ instead.

A listening program for my kids

I’ve implemented a listening program for my kids.

I get feedback on my parenting skills and work out what I can do differently.

On a weekly basis, I ask them to fill in a structured questionnaire. They rate every aspect of their experience as one of my children, and overall questions on satisfaction and loyalty. I use natty software to run the analysis and feed it into my fatherhood dashboard. I get bonuses for improvements in my parenting performance.

I also monitor their social media interactions and derive data on their parent-related sentiment. I track this against the structured survey, and I can see a strong correlation between sentiment and satisfaction. If they’re unhappy with my parenting skills they absolutely share this with their friends, and this has an impact on my reputation as a father.

Regularly I hook them up to EEG and fMRI equipment, and calculate the neuro-engagement scores related to the different types of activities that I do with them. This helps me plan our time together, ensuring I get the biggest emotional bang for my time and money.

Finally, I’ve developed a set of cognitive biases which explain how and why my children divert from rational behaviour. That way I can begin to predict their decisions, and nudge them towards doing what I need them to do. They’re better behaved and more helpful around the house.

It’s a comprehensive, multi-faceted programme from which I get a significant return on my investment. It helps me understand my children and generate actions for improvement of my parenting. My wife, on the other hand, chats to them and listens to what they say back.