How to get close to the business from the client or agency side

Having worked in research agencies for the likes of Tesco, Hilton & IKEA and in the insight function of several international retailers, Simon Tregidgo, Group Strategy Lead at Kingfisher, reveals what he’s learnt from both sides about getting under the skin of businesses.

How important is to get close to businesses you’re working with?

Agency side, you’re always told to get close to the client’s business. If you can understand it, you can start answering the questions they don’t even know to ask. It makes sense.

I kept feeling I was quite close to what was going on but each time I moved closer to the business side, I’d realise how far I actually was. Moving through the ranks agency side, then into the client side, then from the insight function into a more core business role as a stakeholder, I’ve appreciated how little I knew at each step. But I don’t think that’s a problem: it is useful to know as much as you can, but you can’t know everything.

Your role is representing the customer as best you can. No one knows the customer better than you and representing them correctly empowers the client to make the right decisions – those that are mutually beneficial to both the customer you represent and the client business.

Where are people falling down?

It’s easy to jump to trying to get the information you think you need, rather than just being open to collecting all the information you can access. So, agency side, don’t focus just on your clients’ business but be deeply curious about other teams, other projects, other people. You’ll get exposure to other techniques, approaches, ways of working so you can be that expert for the client.

Similarly on the client side, be curious about other teams, other functions, other initiatives. People always talk about connecting the dots, but that’s the easy bit. The hard bit is collecting a truly broad range of otherwise random dots to start with. It isn’t something achieved overnight. It’s a long-term, always-on curiosity – expanding the net, speaking to people, spreading the net wider and finding even more interesting people.

“People always talk about connecting the dots, but that’s the easy bit. The hard bit is collecting a truly broad range of otherwise random dots to start with. It isn’t something achieved overnight.”

And be aware that they will get value from this too. You will underestimate how useful your expertise on the customer can be to them. Keep sense checking that, but don’t be too humble.

So what is your advice for insight professionals?

Be curious. Don’t assume that you can’t do something else in the business to gain a fresh perspective. Ask about being seconded to new roles even if you haven’t had formal training in that function. Sometimes you have to propose it and you’ll be surprised how often a company will make it happen.

Build a network. I have 15-minute recurring meetings in my diary once a quarter or a year to force water cooler moments with people that are completely disconnected from my role. They are colleagues I’ve no specific reason to talk to right now but have organically met over time in training, work events, on projects and meetings. I set a ground rule that if we don’t find anything to talk about in the first two minutes, we’ll cut the call short. But that never happens. Other meetings and avenues spin out of the discussion because you start to see how different moving parts of the business are developing and interconnecting.

Get onto the shop floor. Seeing the realities of day-to-day life for colleagues and customers is invaluable. I spent time in a Screwfix store recently and I want to do a couple of days in each of our other countries as well. You might worry that you’ll get in the way but, certainly in retail, an extra pair of hands for eight hours is appreciated.

Consider confidence. The Dunning-Kruger effect is about the relationship between confidence and knowledge. When you know nothing, you are the most confident. The more you know, the more your confidence dips. Donald Trump is a good example of it in that he comes out all guns blazing about topics where he knows very little.

We’ve all got to be conscious that we might have high and low confidence in the wrong things. For instance, it’s funny how at each stage of my career, I’ve been confident that I was really close to the business and then later realised how far away I was. Sometimes, as an insight professional, I wasn’t confident to ask the right questions about the business beyond the customer view. But we desperately need that knowledge to bring a unique, valuable lens to business decisions, folding the customer in in the right places. Make time and space for curious conversations.”

“Make time and space for curious conversations.”

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