Cutty SarkToo few companies have a Customer Strategy, let alone a Customer Insight (CI) Strategy. At least, that’s my experience.

In fact many business strategies that I’ve seen, which seek to pepper their presentation with customer language, if you look closer are really channel strategies or product strategies – reflecting the current silos in that business.

This is unfortunate, as most CEOs would acknowledge the critical importance of their business understanding, acquiring, satisfying & retaining customers (ideally converting them into advocates). But perhaps it reflects that may boardrooms have not had an empowered & articulate customer leader (or better still CI leader) to identify the need & drive the change. Anyway, as a small contribution to fill this gap, let me share a few reflections on what I have found helpful to consider when creating a customer insight strategy.

At its simplest, strategy is just a series of decisions about “what you are going to do“. This mindset can help avoid too much theorising with pretty diagrams and ensure your strategizing does lead to an implementation plan that is actioned. As a simple framework, it can help to consider 3 overlapping sets which you need to consider for a CI strategy:

Strategy diagram.001Strategic Alignment: Although a CI strategy can inform & guide business & marketing strategies (from an understanding of consumers, your target market, their perceptions, unmet needs & channel usage), normally those exist prior to creating a CI strategy. So a first priority is to ensure alignment.

How can customer insight help achieve the goals of the business strategy? What does the business need to understand better to deliver the marketing strategy? How can the work which aligns best with top strategic priorities be prioritized for CI function. Is there other work that the CI function is doing that can be stopped or reduced given its low alignment with strategic priorities? All these elements should be thought through to scope what is included within CI strategy.

Your business & marketing strategy have likely been shaped, at least in early stages by PEST, SWOT and other tools to analyse internal & external factors. Similarly, in summarising what the CI strategy should be (aligned to business & marketing strategies) it is useful to compare with use of CI that is working for others businesses (here lessons can often by learned outside your sector) and summarise what CI work has been most effective previously (on basis of commercial return & improved customer feedback).

Both of these approaches should help identify priority work areas where CI can make a difference and help deliver the business & marketing strategies.

Operational Effectiveness: This is all about organisation & processes. How does the CI function operate. Once again it is useful to both look internally, capture what really happens already, and look externally (this time for best practice models). Given the relative immaturity of CI in academic terms and lack of common language or focus from ‘marketing experts’ it can be hard to find the textbook answer to what is the Customer Insight Best Practice model. However, I have found a few of the benchmarking models used by technology research companies & marketing professional bodies useful and have produced my own (on basis of 13 years experience in creating & leading such functions).

However you come by a best practice model with which you are comfortable, your next step should be the familiar approach for gap analysis. Summarise your current practice, compare & contrast with best practice model and then prioritize the gaps you find. prioritization here needs to be informed by what you will be using your CI function to achieve (as summarised in strategic alignment section).  This review & gap analysis should consider not just the processes for getting different items of work delivered, production lines or value chains if you will, but also the organisational structure of the team. Despite some leaders claiming this does not matter if you have a unifying vision & the right attitude, all my experience teaches me that it does. Human beings are inherently tribal and the quality of CI output is strongly impacted by inter-disciplinary cooperation.

People Leadership: That mention of departmental structure brings us neatly onto focussing on the people in your CI team(s). Too often strategy documents, even if they achieve translating the conceptual into the practical, they fail to then consider the people side of change. To deliver the priorities identified in your strategic alignment review, requires not just appropriate structures & effective processes, but also the right people & culture. A good place to start can be a review of the current people in roles, comparing them to the ideal roles & skills required to deliver the work needed. Such a review should seek to consider people’s generic competencies & wider skills than they may be asked to use in current role, as well as critically their attitude & fit with the team.

But beyond just the right individuals, success will depend on those people coming together to form effective teams and that is more about culture than what is written down. I like to think of culture as ‘what happens round here when people aren’t being watched’. Various approaches have been tried to impose or encourage the culture wanted in a team, but I’ve found little works as well as empowering the people themselves to create the culture in which they want to work. An effective people leader is needed, who can communicate a clear vision & make decisions, but they will often be most successful then working with the suitably skilled individuals to together define the team culture they want and how that can be encouraged. Truly listening to the wisdom of those doing the work, recognising & rewarding the behaviour sought and giving time to developing people & fixing environmental irritants, will all encourage this.

None of this is easy. But being in the position to articulate to both your team & your boss & the board a coherent Customer Insight strategy (which explains how it enables business objectives, operates effectively & gets the best out of the people in the function) can be hugely powerful.