Behave like consultants

By Lucy Davison, published in Quirk’s

The research industry needs to learn to improve its consultancy skills.

While doing a Webinar for ESOMAR, one of my co-participants, Simon Chadwick from Cambiar Consulting, revealed an interesting slide (Figure 1). It showed the skills for client researchers that are currently in demand and the skills for researchers that will be in demand in the future. The skills that were growing in demand were storytelling, consulting and intellectual curiosity. The skills that were currently in demand, but projected to become less important, included PowerPoint and PC skills, as well as reporting/presentation skills and project management.

So clearly the research industry needs to learn to improve its consultancy skills. This not only means agencies need to work as partners with clients rather than as suppliers but also that corporate researchers should be working in partnership with their stakeholders. Right now the in-house researcher is all too often treated like a tap, to turn information and data on and off at the whim of the C-suite and marketing. Consulting skills would enable corporate researchers to offer other sources for those random questions that always crop up, suggest ways of building stories from existing data or propose tailored solutions for that stakeholder’s needs. All of this will result in less of a need for PowerPoint skills and more of a need for storytelling and persuasion. If the power of what we do is in if and how it is used, then ultimately we are in the business of communicating and persuading – not telling the truth.

While PowerPoint has a ubiquitous grip on communications within the data, research and insight community, it is meaningless and even iniquitous to suggest that it is because of PowerPoint that we are poor communicators. While PowerPoint does indeed allow, and even encourage, users to chart up hundreds of slides and then see if there is a story in there, you can’t suggest that the reason we do it is because Microsoft made it so easy to use. We do it because of poor time management – we do not behave as strategic advisors with clients and stakeholders and we do not think about the report or deliverable as a piece of communication in its own right. In other words, we fail to tell stories.

The fact is that although we want to, we do not really behave like consultants. We talk about being strategic advisors and then behave like suppliers. We jump when clients say jump. Often this leads to poorly designed research outputs because the project or questionnaire itself has not been designed with the end deliverable in mind. Questions slip into surveys, moderators are asked to just find out what people think about something and before you know it the content has little cohesion, making it even harder to tell a story.

What might have been a specific and well-designed project to go hunting for one strategic outcome becomes a wide-ranging catch-all fishing net, trawling for results across a range of different issues. Much of the reason for this comes down to the desire for agencies to agree to changes from clients to keep the business and maintain good relationships – and in turn the need for corporate researchers to please stakeholders with last-minute requests. But the slide from Cambiar was very clear; we need to hone our consultancy skills. There are many tools and techniques we can use. We can learn how to do this.

Finally, to my own personal bugbear: Most researchers do not think about the communication of a project as the start of the process, or as a campaign in itself. They think about it as the end of a project. Job done. By planning your study, thinking about your audiences and how you will communicate to them, you can start to build a story with your data. The structure, media and flow of your communication will improve immeasurably and eventually the outcome of the research will be action – strategic insight-based decision-making on the part of your stakeholders.

Ultimately the power of what we do lies in whether and how it is used. We all know tales of wasted research – studies or data that are never looked at. It’s all very well worrying about finding and telling the truth, but if no one is listening it makes no difference. If we think of ourselves as being in the business of communicating and persuading, we can start to sell that truth by honing stories that really deliver.