The author will detail these lessons and more when he presents at NEXT 2020, June 1-2 in New York.

Here’s a twist on a bit of ancient wisdom: when the insights researcher is ready, the right opportunity will appear. That should really be Lesson Zero for my NEXT 2020 master class, “Birthing and Nurturing the Client-Side Insights Function”. Take every opportunity you can for training, be it formal academic instruction, expanding outside your comfort zone to learn a new technique based on a client need, learning a new substantive area (that is, a new industry or client-internal vertical), or professional certification training in new metrics (digital analytics). That way, when that shining, one-of-a-kind chance comes along, you’ll be positioned to seize it. Having the opportunity to build the insights function is such a chance.

In my case, that came in 2014 with the Nemours Children’s Health System. The position as Director, Research & Outcomes was with KidsHealth® (which is the Nemours consumer brand for children’s health information), requiring someone skilled in “traditional research methods as well as digital (web) analytics”. Generally, at least back in 2014, these were non-interfacing career paths. The first box was well-checked, but the second? Thankfully, a stint the year before with Lenovo (in their GUX group), including certification training in the Adobe analytics suite, supplied the latter experience. Without stretching myself, I never would have considered the opportunity with Nemours, let alone been considered for it. Absent winning that role, I wouldn’t have been placed to build the consumer insights function at Nemours, but personal preparation alone would not have been sufficient.

Relative to other industries, health systems have been late to the game in recognizing the consumer’s point of view. For millennia, physicians have been authorities prescribing treatments, and those they treated were “patients”, not “consumers”; the physicians drove matters, not the ones in need of care.  Framed in such a tradition, even in a world-class system like Nemours, the inertia that needed overcoming to ensure incorporating consumer needs and wants into service and product offerings required support from executive leadership. That by itself is a lesson, but there is a further one tacked on: to secure such support, researchers need to adopt an entrepreneurial spirit. You are building a business, a franchise, and the start-up will fail if the “owner” does not always drive to secure its footing within the larger organization it serves.

When I was on the vendor side, fairly early on in that setting, an excellent supervisor once said to me, “Our job is to make the client look good”. At the most tactical level, that dictum should stay forefront in the insights research entrepreneur’s mind as an aid to demonstrating the insights function’s value. On the client side, making your internal client look good means delivering the intelligence required to make decisions that ultimately will deliver quality to the end-consumer. By the way, this is really no different from the force that should drive the vendor-side researcher, except that if you’re sitting “on the inside” the stakes might appear higher because you’re actually in the boat that needs to keep floating! The first time you make such a delivery is the first success in a portfolio that will help garner you the next engagement. 

An ever-growing success portfolio is your equity, but as an entrepreneur, never be complacent. You have shown your value to one client, or to one client-department. The next step is to expand your “brand reach”. On the vendor side, we can consultatively sell to others at the same client organization, or via industry conferences that display our work. On the client-side, lose no opportunity to promote what you’ve already accomplished to those you haven’t yet worked with – talk your work up.  Assemble a lunch-‘n’-learn with key folks from outside the vertical you’ve already done work for. And as with the idea of stretching yourself in your training, do the same in purveying the services you offer.  Has your primary client been Marketing? What other departments does your organization have that would benefit from knowing how/what consumers think/feel/need/want? Finance & Billing? Business Development? Website Design Services? All these and others specific to your organization can benefit from consumer insights.

If you have gone the way of many successful start-ups, a symptom that another lesson is in the offing is what is usually referred to as a “good pain”: there isn’t enough of you to go around anymore to handle the volume and kinds of business you’ve generated. An example from Nemours: as the Consumer Insights function was being born and evolving, digital analytics came under my purview, one use of which is understanding and optimizing all the paths by which parents can get their children seen by a Nemours provider. Although I had picked up web analytics at Lenovo, this was not my “sweet spot”, nor did I want to give up my voice of the consumer survey work to focus on building dashboards full time and extracting insights from them. Hence the Consumer Insights team came into being with the addition of a full-time digital analyst. The same impetus underlay the hiring of a full-time business analyst onto the team, as well as an analyst who focuses on digital marketing campaigns. I imagine we are not so different from many organizations in the pathways that need to be navigated for staffing up. However, to folks with a research bent, the lessons can be found in awareness of such business matters as negotiating with your executive sponsor, budgeting, and working with HR.

With your team members in place, they will each start to develop their own clients in their areas of focus and competence, following the same principles already worked out. The insights they draw, in fact that any researcher draws, should yield recommendations derived from statistically reliable effects or associations. As well, findings have to be imparted clearly, directly, and always with an eye toward informing actions that must be taken. You should be trying to develop your team into ideal consultative insights researchers, who are equal parts subject matter experts, methodologists, and skilled communicators. In the end, on behalf of your clients and your organization, you are all working toward an outcome that clearly transmits appropriately contextualized information derived from an unimpeachable technique. If you can do that, your lessons will have been well learned and passed on!         

Join Ed as he presents, “Birthing and Nurturing the Client-Side Insights Function” at NEXT 2020, June 1-2 in New York.