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How a one-woman insights function changed a company's view of research

Article ID:
October 2013, page 54
Susan Topel

Article Abstract

The author details her experience establishing a research department at a $6 billion Fortune 500 company, turning it into a data-driven organization while saving almost $1 million along the way.

A total transformation

Editor's note: Susan Topel is director of strategic insights at Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based health care services firm.

The most successful companies know that real-time business insights provide a competitive advantage. But some companies have to reach a crisis point to realize that there is no such thing as magic decision-making without the facts. It forces them to wonder what would happen if they could actually use data to inform their decisions.

At Centene, a St. Louis-based health care services firm, I was hired to establish a primary research function and promote the value of insights-driven business decisions into a culture where anecdotes and opinions drove major investments. I am responsible to support a $6.5 billion government health plan provider, including 17 individual health plans and six specialty subsidiary companies.

With 20 years of experience in market research, I felt up to the task, but only if I could find a way to streamline the data collection and provide quality metrics cost-effectively. As one-person shop, I needed to find a technology solution that allowed me to replicate the productivity and efficiency of a larger team.

So, how do you transform an anecdotal, assumption-based culture to a heavily data-driven and data-dependent one? My journey shows that it’s possible – and that it doesn’t have to be that hard, or expensive, as long as you have the right approach and understand how technology can help you scale it.

Become a research evangelist

For an organization that had never had a research function, I needed to become a research evangelist. I began going door-to-door, setting up meetings with every function that could possibly need my services, including marketing, product development, HR, finance, health economics, medical management and new product development. I even approached groups that traditionally wouldn’t think they had research needs to say, “I’m here and this is what I do. How can I offer support?”

I’m a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s “maven” philosophy of finding the trusted experts in an organization, the information brokers who are often the first to take advantage of new trends. I started asking people, “What did you do before I got here?” Invariably, there was someone in their department they turned to who had a login and password for a survey software account – someone like Tom in HR, who was the guy that everyone would ask about surveys. He has since become a good friend.

Getting these mavens throughout the organization on board was key to my evangelism. My boss at the time I was hired was a product guru, not a researcher, but knew the value of research and understood that Centene could not continue to thrive and grow without discipline. She wisely predicted: “You know you’re doing a good job when your phone starts ringing.”

Persistence and gentle persuasion

For my first several months on the job, I continued my dog-and-pony show across the company with persistence and gentle persuasion. I made a concerted effort to educate people about what market research really is and how it is different from direct marketing and sales. I often referred to my work as “survey” or “focus group” help. Market research can be an inaccessible term, as most people think they already know what it means; they might have had a market research class in college or think it consists of sending a postcard in the mail.

I spent a great deal of time evangelizing to compliance officers. Working at a firm that is a health care plan provider for Medicaid, our compliance officers are charged with ensuring that the company complies with state rules that limit promotional activities. The “market research” term really scared off this group, because they assumed we were doing actual marketing, not research. So I changed my title to director of strategic insights and created a presentation that addressed their specific pain points. I highlighted the benefits of strategic insights to create competitive differentiation, reduce customer churn, create new products and revenue streams, identify issues with service delivery and ensure compliance with state contracts.

I believe I won them over primarily by pulling up the CASRO guidelines and assuring them that research participation is voluntary, anonymous and confidential and would not affect a participant’s health care benefits in any way.

Start with two focus groups

With a limited research budget, we had enough money to start with two focus groups in each market. I knew that executives had to see the data to believe it and that they needed to see a focus group done well.

To add value right away, the first set of projects focused on learning about our customers. I enticed executives with invites announcing, “One day only: Come hear what your customers think!” I educated corporate attendees about the nature and purpose of focus groups and even advised them how to dress. We set up videostreaming using FocusVision so people off-site could watch from a desktop or smartphone as well as participate by sending live notes and chats. Remote participation was especially helpful for departments that didn’t believe in spending money to travel to do research. It was important to make research accessible to everyone, even if they couldn’t justify getting on a plane.

The results of our initial focus groups were eye-opening – most executives not only didn’t know who their customers were but also had some big misperceptions (e.g., that a typical Medicaid member was not digitally savvy). They were thrilled to hear why their customers felt a certain way about a program or service. We tested all kinds of new value-added offerings, such as a cash incentive program to reward healthy behavior. We also tested concepts for marketing materials and had our customers make decisions for us.

From our humble focus group beginnings, the payoff from our voice-of-the-customer outreach was immediate and explosive. Just as Malcolm Gladwell predicted about mavens, health plan leaders started sharing their experiences with one another. The enthusiasm was contagious as health plan CEOs began comparing notes in their monthly meetings and actually began making decisions based on customer insight. Suddenly, they no longer had to guess and worry with gut decisions but could sleep better at night knowing they were headed in the right direction.

This early success began the second wave of my evangelism: preaching the benefits of what we had learned and how it was actually changing strategy. It also propelled our move to quantitative research to broaden our audience and apply some statistical rigor.

Centralize and standardize

Before my arrival at Centene, there was no centralized research function. Departments were fielding their own surveys using consumer survey tools. They were also hiring full-service research firms but had little time or expertise to find the best providers. Few people had any research training and there was no sharing of information or best practices among departments. This siloed approach resulted in tremendous duplication of efforts as well as poor-quality surveys and analysis.

We needed to standardize on a single, enterprise platform for all types of survey research and began our search with these requirements: robust programing capability but easy to use; ability to pull “best practice” questions from a library; a single library for all surveys; integrated panel management; control over survey development and deployment through a gatekeeper; and affordability.

We selected Research Suite, an enterprise survey platform from Provo, Utah-based Qualtrics that met all of these requirements. Qualtrics allows me to function with the efficiency of a larger team and lets me create surveys with a variety of questions types, including heat maps and matrixes with graphics. The ability to include graphics and videos in surveys helps make our quantitative results as qualitative as possible.

Once we standardized on a technology platform, we needed to get everyone else on board. I made friends with the folks in IT and together we found 60 individual licenses for SurveyMonkey, SurveyWriter and a few other tools. The IT team blocked all of these sites and then informed the help desk team to divert all complainers to me. It turned out to be a great way to attract more mavens.

Come a long way

We’ve come a long way in the past 18 months. Today we are conducting approximately 400 surveys a year in-house, averaging 30-40 surveys a month across all departments. About 30 percent of our overall research is internal: HR, employee feedback, internal positioning and seminar and workshop feedback.

We recently conducted an employee satisfaction survey for one of our call centers and by acting on the results, we reduced our employee turnover by nearly 30 percent. Of the 70 percent of our research that is external, 30 percent is customer satisfaction to support retention, another 30 percent is product and concept testing and 10 percent is focused on branding and corporate positioning.

We recently conducted a large conjoint study across all of our 17 markets to design a new health insurance product and used the results to drive product configuration, pricing and deployment. The project was an example of how we now take a broad, analytical approach to decision-making, rather than throw darts at a map.

I am able to do most of the research myself using Qualtrics. I can create and launch surveys in a matter of hours and am often able to disseminate findings in an attractive, digestible format within 24 hours. Being agile and responsive to senior management has been critical. I can launch a 20-question survey to thousands of providers on a Friday afternoon and have 600+ responses by Monday morning to inform our decision-making.

We continue to use outsourced research providers for a variety of projects, but doing more research in-house has allowed us to dramatically increase the volume of research across the entire organization. We estimate that the amount of research we did last year in-house would have cost at least $1 million to outsource and we did it for a fraction of that cost.

A seat at the table

The strategic insights function at Centene now has a seat at the executive table and plays a critical role in strategic decision-making. From our humble focus group beginnings, the company has truly transformed into a data-driven organization. You can’t argue with facts. I am part of an integrated team that drives the development and implementation of every new product – and we don’t make a move without data.

A successful transformation to a data-driven company also brought several unexpected and personal benefits: a promotion, a window office and a parking space. Now that’s a success story!

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