A recent survey conducted by NetBase, an enterprise social analytics firm, finds that while every company collects customer experience and feedback data, all the data doesn’t matter much if businesses can’t transform the data into insight that drives strategic initiatives.

Similarly, a study conducted by the Temkin Group found that while most companies think their Voice of Customer (VoC) efforts are successful, less than one-quarter of companies consider themselves good at making changes to the business based on the insight. Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-common scenario.

The need to quickly move beyond raw data and research to meaningful and actionable customer insight has never been greater, nor the challenge more daunting. In fact, it’s one of the key arguments for adding CMOs to company boards.

It can be invaluable to have someone with a strong pulse on the customer as major decisions are being discussed and made. Yet marketing-experienced executives are rarely invited to join a company’s board of directors; only sixty-eight of the 9,800 board seats at Fortune 1000 companies are occupied by marketers.

From Brand Ambassadors to Customer Champions

As marketing leaders, we need to be the champions for the customer. And that starts with customer insight. Business-to-consumer (B2C) CMOs have an advantage here. Consumer CMOs have a data-driven understanding of their customers and have used it to shape the buyer’s journey. This is not as prevalent in the B2B world, where companies have an enterprise sales force that knows the customer far better than the CMO does.

That is slowly changing thanks to the rise of marketing automation, which now provides CMOs with the tools to adopt a B2C approach in working with B2B customers. Granted, we don’t own the end-to-end customer experience and all its touch points, but that doesn’t mean we can’t step up and lead the framework, standards, and transformation.

Insight Is Your Lifeline to the Customer

There is no shortage of data or customer insight. Customer insight can come from multiple sources and take many forms. These include: comments, complaints, unsolicited feedback, observation, market research, advisory boards, surveys, interviews, polling, tastings, online reviews, social media, shopping behavior, buying patterns, customer service interactions, and more.

While most businesses have rich customer data, they struggle to aggregate and activate the data into real-time insight.

Traditionally, companies have relied on a combination of quantitative data from surveys (such as for brand tracking and customer satisfaction) and qualitative insight from focus groups, interviews, and advisory boards.

There has been much debate over the effectiveness of these methods as they rely on a customer’s memory and good intentions rather than on actual behavior. The focus group, in particular, has been chided and even proclaimed dead by The Wall Street Journal. The prevailing consensus is that technology-driven tools do a better job in explaining consumer behavior than surveys and climate-controlled rooms with one-way mirrors.

Not only are these new technology tools less expensive and less time-consuming to prepare and administer, but they also increase speed to insight, which leads to real-time decision making and speed to activation.

Insight in Real-Time

There are a number of new real-time methods available today to help accelerate real-time decision making. These methods include social media, online brand communities, observing customers in their natural environment, frontline employees, physical events and more.

Not only do these up-close-and-personal methods provide rich insight, but they also provide a platform for co-creation and dynamic customer engagement.

Many companies have turned to social media as a listening and learning tool. Social media conversations happen in your industry every minute of the day.

While some companies choose to merely monitor these conversations by putting them into fancy dashboards for management to review, the more progressive companies jump into social media conversations with both feet. They realize it is a valuable opportunity to engage with customers in a meaningful dialogue.

Beyond social media, online brand communities, message boards, and review platforms offer another good venue for listening and learning. These forums are an insight-rich source of customer feedback on everything from existing products to new products, from service to support, from user complaints to compliments.

By enabling co-creation and tapping into the collective intelligence of your customers, online communities are a great way to build trust, advocacy, and loyalty. They provide a platform for companies to test new ideas, develop new products, track customer service trends, gauge customer interest, and spot trends.

Online communities also provide excellent case studies that you can use in your marketing activity (with permission, of course). Some of the best online brand communities include Lugnet (Lego), Figment (Random House), Harley Owners Group (HOG), and The SAP Community Network.

Social media, of course, isn’t the only way to get real-time insight. Observing customers in their natural environment can also be revealing and is becoming more and more prevalent.

Some companies have turned to ethnographers—social scientists dedicated to studying people in their natural environments—as a means to uncover valuable insight and stories. “If you want to understand how a lion hunts you don’t go to the zoo, you go to the jungle,” says David Sable, global chief executive of Y&R, a creative agency owned by WPP PLC.

How to Become a Customer Insight Machine

The end game for all marketers is to create a single database that houses everything their organization knows about each of its customers, putting it all in one place and making it accessible with a click. This will finally enable the shift away from mass marketing toward truly personalized marketing.

Regardless of where you are on the path to becoming a customer insight machine, there are practical steps you can take now to accelerate the journey.

  1. Make customers a strategy: Instead of just viewing customers as an audience, make them a strategy. Turn your marketing strategy into a customer strategy with VoC at its core.
  2. Get up close and personal: Each quarter, spend a day traveling with one of your salespeople as they meet with customers or at a call center as agents interact with customers. Encourage your team members to do the same.
  3. Listen and learn: Continually monitor and collect insight from across all your key constituencies. Invite employees to share ideas for improving the customer experience. Analyze the digital data trail from your customers’ online and mobile interactions.
  4. Share insights broadly: Aggregate and share customer feedback throughout your organization, not just the executive staff.
  5. Provide a daily dosage of insight: Start each meeting with a review of the newly learned customer (and employee) insight.
  6. Eat your own dog food: Ensure your employees are using your company’s products and services, if possible.
  7. Empower decisions: Empower your employees to bend the rules on occasion when it is clearly in the best interest of the customer.
  8. Understand your customer’s journey: Map your customer’s end-to-end journey to not only understand and better synchronize every touch point of the experience but also to identify any gaps. Do this as a joint exercise with sales, support services, operations, product development, corporate strategy, finance, IT, and others.
  9. Be the change: Use customer-friendly language on your website and in all your sales and marketing pieces. Model the behavior, and recognize others when they do too.
  10. Take (focused) action: Not all feedback you receive is actionable or aligned with your company’s core purpose. Develop a systemic way of filtering the insight you receive and then take swift action on those that fit with your organization’s strategy.

In the words of the legendary Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, “We have only two sources of competitive advantage: the ability to learn more about our customer faster than the competition, and the ability to turn that learning into action faster than the competition.”

Becoming an insight machine will provide your organization a knowledge-based competitive advantage, and will provide your customers with a more personalized and memorable customer experience.

About the Author: Engelina Jaspers helps business leaders build nimble marketing organizations with customer insight and speed to execution at its core. Her new book, Marketing Flexology: How to Outsmart Change and Future-proof Your Career, launches October 16, 2018.