Insight from the front line

A large department store chain decided that it was time for a refresh of the seats in the footwear section of its shops, with a store in the Midlands pencilled in as a pilot for the new design.

The new seats duly arrived, with a motivational speech delivered to the footwear team from the Area Manager, a not too subtle hint that there would be particular interest in sales in the following weeks, and an expectation that the new, fancy-dan, state-of-the art seats would deliver the appropriate return on investment.

How they pitied him, this well-meaning executive, with the excited expression and slightly desperate appeal to his team. They pitied the dream, the hope, and the aspiration. A pity born of sympathy, not anger, and a deep understanding the plan was deeply flawed. But it was not his fault.

Yes the seats were shiny and new, and comfortable, and probably an inch or so bigger. But it wasn’t what the seats looked like, it was where they were placed which was the problem. You see, the folks from head office had concluded from looking at the data that the footwear department could be more productive and profitable if there were more seats for people to try on shoes.

So the new layout added more seats by simply removing the (wasteful) empty space which the previous layout had indulged. Simple design to a simple problem.

Except no one at head office had asked the footwear team what they thought. More specifically what they knew about their customers. And what they knew is that people trying on shoes like to have some personal space. I think we know why, no need to smell it out. No personal space, no try on the shoe. That’s simple.

How much do you spend on market research every year? Somewhat ironically, it appears that market research on market research isn’t necessarily readily available.

We do know that the market research sector is worth more than £3bn in the added value it brings to the UK (according to the Market Research Society), and that data analytics accounts for around £400m of this.

I guess what organisations value is the insight that experienced market research teams provide on what the customer is really thinking, emerging trends, competition analysis and new product testing.

But the best organisations already employ vast armies of market researchers. People who observe customers habits every day, who have the chance to talk to clients in a live environment, who see things happen in real time, who get to resolve issues which are really important to clients. These researchers have an acute understanding of price sensitivities, of how new products are landing with customers, and about trends in people’s buying habits.

These people hold more knowledge and expertise about customer behaviour in a business than any researcher will ever be able to glean, but that data – big or small – is left largely untapped and unloved. What a waste.

Gary Hamel – according to Forbes “the world’s leading expert on business strategy” – believes that much of the way in which organisations work today remains unchanged from the management orthodoxies of the early 20th century; that we continue to rely on approaches conceived by people born in the 1850s, and this institutional oversight of our in-house customer expertise is a perfect example of this in practice.

Our career development remains largely based on a model in which we start work on the front line (whether in a shop, call centre, battlefield, school, engineering, services, the public sector), and then, when we are successful, get promoted.

With promotion come two things. We move away from the front line (and the customer) and we gain more authority. Then we move through the echelons of the business, acquiring ever more authority, until we get to a position where we can make real decisions about our customers who are now so far away from us that we need to recruit a market research agency to help us understand what they really think.

The most important relationship in any business is not the one between the Chair and the Chief Executive, or even the CEO and the FD. It’s the relationship between the customer and the people delivering the product or service. Vaneet Nayar of HCL Technologies calls this the Value Zone. It’s where the customer gets value from the service or product and the organisation gets the value from the customer.

If we get that it’s in our interests to put lots of effort and importance into understanding that relationship … if we get that encouraging and helping front line employees to want to share their experience and insights because it might help the business be better … if we get that it has a fantastic side effect … then people feel good when they are involved in decisions and their opinions are valued.

People who feel valued feel good, feel loyal, and are more productive.

So treat your front line staff as your best intelligence agents and you get smart information and happy people.

Buy one get one free never sounded better.