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OPINION22 August 2013

Smashing the stereotype

Opinion

Researchers are often seen as introverted, analytical thinkers who lack the people skills required to engage and inspire decision makers. It’s time they showed off a different side of their personalities, says Craig Scott.

Katy places a call to a new research service. They are a 24/7 call-centre styled operation based in Asia. The call operator reads the on-screen script asking Katy about her research needs, sample size etc. A few weeks later a presentation is emailed with all the results charted in a pre-agreed standardised format.

Katy loves this way of working. She remembers how she used to work with her old research team – how some attended meetings but didn’t contribute, how they emailed data but didn’t offer an accompanying opinion, and how she always had to go to them to talk about ideas but they never came to her. But that was in the past – research teams don’t exist anymore.

With this way of working, the research team doesn’t get in the way. Katy gets what she needs and uses the results to share the customer’s voice and implications for the business to then present them in an engaging way to senior management.

Strategic or not?
You might think that the above story is fantasy; but it’s not far off becoming a reality. I was in a clientside role where an advising consultancy expressed a view that market research is a service function and could be outsourced. It met their objectives of reducing cost by reducing headcount. Horrified, I said that research is a strategic function delivering competitive advantage through exceptional customer understanding. They didn’t agree.

“Technical mastery of our craft is typically what we do best. However, our ability to engage and inspire others is lacking. We provide customer knowledge but we don’t champion that knowledge – it’s a subtle yet fundamental difference”

It’s not a future I want for the industry but, having thought about it, I understand why the consultants considered research a non-essential function. It all comes down to how the industry adds value. Technical mastery of our craft is typically what we do best. However, our ability to engage and inspire others is lacking. We provide customer knowledge but we don’t champion that knowledge – it’s a subtle yet fundamental difference.

There is a stereotype that is applied to researchers and, while I don’t generally like stereotypes, I think there is an element of truth there. We are seen as introverted, reflective thinkers with good analytical ability – but the perception is that we lack people skills. We provide knowledge that feeds into business decisions, but those decisions are made by other people. This is why some people think we’re a service function.

The thing is, I like being a reflective thinker. I like getting my head down and getting my teeth into a knotty, analytical challenge. I’m guessing you do too. But it’s not enough. We have to learn to be adaptive and flexible in how we effectively engage different stakeholders.

Find your voice
My vision for the industry is one whereby no organisational decision is made without the customer in mind. Far from being outsourced, the research team will be called into the board room. Or, even better, we are on the board. Our point of view will be valued and commercial decisions won’t be taken without it. We’ll deliver our thoughts in a considered yet emphatic and engaging manner, and we’ll develop bigger relationships as a result.

“You need to recognise when a situation calls for the more outgoing side of your personality to engage a senior management team, or contribute to team meetings, and to relax into your more natural state to deliver your functional expertise”

At Brand Learning we have worked with teams and individuals, both marketing and market research, to develop their leadership capabilities. What we’ve learnt is that it’s not just the way you are naturally, but how you adapt to different situations to be more effective. To flex your style. You need to recognise when a situation calls for the more outgoing side of your personality to engage a senior management team, or contribute to team meetings, and to relax into your more natural state to deliver your functional expertise.

None of us can fundamentally change our personalities but we can be smart about how we adapt and use different aspects of our characters. If we always keep the customer at the heart of our interactions, we can use insight to create impact and avoid a call-centre style future. Here are some tips on how:

  • Champion your customer’s voice and seek every opportunity to have that voice heard. Hats off to the team at Standard Life who knew the business was distant from its customers so they brought the customer’s lives into the office by building a contemporary home and replicating a railway carriage for their daily commute;
  • Ensure you have the wider view of your business. Read the annual report and appreciate where the business wants to go and your place in it;
  • Link the customer’s voice to commercial direction. Your knowledge must inform business decisions, be relevant and answer the ‘so what?’ question;
  • Keep the research talk behind the scenes. Commissioning research requires technical expertise to judge what a project needs. However, there’s no need to discuss the beauty of a well-constructed questionnaire or a new methodology with senior decision-makers. The only thing you should be talking about is what exciting new knowledge you have about your consumer;
  • Flex your style to allow your voice – the customer’s voice – to break through. If your marketing colleagues like a proactive approach then go to them with some news, a learning or an idea. Offer to partner with them to drive an initiative and make sure it is grounded in supporting the business goals.

If all of the above feels a little uncomfortable for you then know that it’s a good thing. And if you recognise the stereotype, or are part of it, then you’ll understand why Katy loves an outsourced research service. You’ll understand why we can be considered a service, not a strategic function. You’ll also understand the need for change.

This column is provided by Craig Scott, marketing capability director at Brand Learning

1 Comment

6 years ago

Great article, I like the provocative style of "your future reality"! My experience from when I used to lead a research team was that things started to change when we applied all of your tips in a very structured way ... and contracted with the business a very clear vision of insight and foresight providers rather than data gatherer. We gained confidence and found we were not so introverted after all!

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