From tactician to trusted advisor

Editor's note: David Santee is the principal of True North Market Insights, a Kansas City, Kan., research firm.

Have you ever considered how much influence you have within your organization? As market researchers, we certainly want to think it’s significant. After all, we have our fingers on the pulse of the market, rich data at our disposal and access to facts that can change the course of our organization. Ergo, of course we have influence.

Well, not so fast. As professional researchers, we are adept at gathering and mining invaluable data for our clients or organizations. But we often struggle with effectively communicating that data to senior leadership in a way that influences business decisions – acting as strategic partners, if you will. As a profession, we seem to have trouble with this role. For example, a study by the Corporate Executive Board revealed that while 65 percent of senior leaders want us to be strategic partners with them, only 25 percent view us that way.

I find that discouraging, yet there doesn’t seem to be a lot of advice or meaningful discussion within our publications and conferences on how we close this gap. But we need to. Quite simply, becoming an influencer or trusted advisor is our most important job. Jim Figura, former VP consumer insights at Colgate-Palmolive, is on record as saying, “If they don’t take your recommendation, it’s your fault.”

I like this sentiment. It puts the responsibility on us. Nothing will change unless we make it change. The good news is, we don’t need permission from anyone. In fact, those senior leaders are waiting for us to step up. We just need to do it.

Stay within our comfort zone

So where do we begin? First, let’s be clear: Good research and sound methodology are cost-of-entry in our profession. Often we fail as influencers because we stay within our comfort zone, relying on our methodologies and techniques. That’s only half the job. To truly influence and have a positive impact on our organizations, we must not only deliver our information and opinions but ensure they’re heard and understood by our clients or leaders.

Fortunately the pathway to influence is well-established. The things we must do to help our clients really “get it” have been researched and practiced for literally centuries. Aristotle laid out three elements of influence thousands of years ago that are still valid today: logos – the logical appeal; pathos – the power of an emotional appeal; and ethos – influence through credibility and character.

We just need to understand how they apply to us. Everything we will ever read on influence fits within this structure, so understanding these elements provides a framework for our efforts to influence.

Logos: the numbers, the facts

For us analytic types, logos – the logical appeal – is our strength. Logos is about the numbers, the facts and rational arguments. The stronger our numbers and logic, the stronger we can make our case.

That said, success doesn’t come just from our data or our insights. Because it’s not just about us!

Let me illustrate. Several years ago, I did some consulting with a large international firm in Mexico. The company’s in-house analysts were frustrated that their recommendations were not being accepted. The reason was, their internal clients relied on sales data rather than market research data. When the data sets conflicted, they always went with the sales data.

Who can argue with that? This story highlights the importance of being aware of other data within the organization. Granted, we’re great at reporting data. But our data – valid as we think it is – lives in an ecosystem of data, not a vacuum. Another Corporate Executive Board study found that, on average, senior executives use eight sources of information for most decisions. Facts are great but we’re not the only ones with them. It’s key to understand how our data fits with analytics, sales patterns, finance, etc., because not all these sources of data will align and tell the same story. Typically, the executive is left with sorting through conflicting data to reach a decision.

Let me relay an experience that demonstrates the peril of that approach. I was once in the boardroom with my CEO and the head of analytics. The CEO asked me what I thought about our pricing strategy. I gave a clear, definitive answer based on in-depth market research. He then turned to the head of analytics and asked her. She gave the exact opposite answer based on all of her modeling. Needless to say the CEO was frustrated. After all, we were the ones who were supposed to know the answer.

Bottom line: Both of our datasets were right yet neither of us truly understood how this data reconciled; neither of us understood the entire situation.

Essentially, we gave the CEO permission to ignore both of us. We missed a huge opportunity to influence the company’s pricing strategy and our bottom line simply because neither of us had a full understanding of the entire picture.

Want to be a hero to the CEO? Reconcile all the conflicting data.

Three key things can help you gain an overall perspective, strengthen your position and more effectively influence outcomes:

Diligently gather other relevant data. Get on the distribution list for other data sources so that you can compare. Typically this is an easy thing to do and it does not take much time. Just a quick periodic scan will keep you abreast of key trends. If you are a research supplier, ask to see more than the studies you execute.

Present complementary and/or conflicting data. When pulling data together for anyone whose title begins with a C, search out relevant data from other sources as well as your own. Make sure your data and conclusions are consistent with this other data. If not, rethink your conclusion or have a good reason why your conclusion is right in spite of the conflicting data. If your data is consistent, bring the other data into your summary – it will strengthen your argument.

Assemble an impromptu team to review an issue. Pull together representatives from analytics, sales analysis, operations, finance and product management. Walk through the data on an issue and reconcile everyone’s input. You will have a much better understanding of all the issues and your insights will be much more on-target. Also, all those on this team will be giving the same story up their chain of command. Finally, this helps you be seen as a leader.

Remember, most senior execs are looking for someone who understands their business – a trusted advisor. While technical skills are simply assumed, and can be easily replaced, a trusted advisor is priceless. This applies to the supplier side as well. Understanding other data sources will give us a much broader perspective of the company. This, in turn, will enable us to provide much more insightful analysis and recommendations.
Bottom line: Logic is a powerful influence tool as long as you tell the complete story.

Pathos: emotions can be powerful

Wouldn’t it be great if the facts could simply speak for themselves? Why do we have to think about influence and, worse yet, emotions? When we start talking about “feelings,” we analytical types start getting squeamish. Why can’t we just give them the facts?

Well, the truth of the matter is, there is now significant research that proves we humans make decisions based on emotions and justify those decisions rationally. This theory has been around for many years. But now with advancements in brain science, it has been proven. In his book How Customers Think, Gerald Zaltman reports, “The conscious mind explains actions produced by unconscious processes.”

Since we know this from a consumer behavior standpoint, it only makes sense that it applies within an organization. In fact, I was in my office one day recently talking about this with someone on our team. That’s when it hit me: The CEO – he’s a person too. For that matter, so are the CMO and all those on the operating committee who make the really big decisions. So, considering that decision-makers are people, their brains work just like the rest of ours – they decide based on emotion and justify rationally.

Do you doubt it? Have you ever heard the expression, “Nobody was ever fired for buying IBM”? This is clearly an emotional decision; one based not on capability but on staying safe in a job.

In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge identified several organizational learning disabilities. Among those is the “inability to escape existing mental models.” That sentiment is echoed by John Maynard Keynes: “The difficulty lies, not in accepting new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.”

I have found that even when the data is clear, it is really hard to get someone to change course. Why? Because they may be invested in a course, regardless of whether it’s the best one. And the longer a company has been on an existing course, the more difficult it is to effect change.

If we ignore the importance of emotional decision-making, we will be relegated to being data-crunchers with no influence. So how can we tap into the art of influencing from an emotional perspective?

Over the years I’ve found two of the best tools are stories and metaphors. Simply reporting the numbers does not work. Capturing your audience from an emotional standpoint and beginning to sway decision-maker emotions in your direction can be accomplished through compelling presentations – telling the story in a way that generates interest and acceptance.

Storytelling has received a lot of attention lately – as it should. The term has has turned into a catchphrase that ranges from a real story to applying storytelling concepts. The entire concept is valid and important.

I was once with a CEO and his top officers. I shared all the customer satisfaction numbers and I showed how our satisfaction had not moved despite our best efforts. But there was little motivation to change until the CEO read a customer’s letter. The letter told a story about the customer’s journey and the frustration she encountered. That one story had much more impact than all my numbers. It added clarity and resonated with management in a way my numbers could not. As a result, significant efforts were put into place to enhance client satisfaction.

Metaphors are also wonderful at bringing in significant meaning and emotion with just a few words. I once compared one of my firm’s products to milk at a supermarket. Why? Everyone has milk, it’s pretty much the same from store to store, the cost is the same and everyone knows that everyone has it. Given all that, why would we spend millions in advertising telling people that we have a ubiquitous product? My recommendation was that we spend our communications dollars on building differentiation.

I had lunch with the CMO from that firm a few years later. I learned that in spite of the hundreds of studies I did for her and all the battles we went through together, it was the milk metaphor that she remembered the most. Not any statistics – the metaphor.

Other tools that can also be effective at helping you tell the story include video clips, references from reputable secondary sources and even competitive statements. These can all help evoke the emotional side of decision-makers.

Ethos: influencing through credibility and character

Put in modern terms, ethos is about establishing trust. Of our three elements of influence – logic, emotions and trust – I believe this is the most important. It has to do with who we are – not our data, our knowledge or our good story-telling techniques.

Seth Godin has stated, “Earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest.” Earning or gaining trust means more than just being dependable and delivering on time. Trust is an inherently emotional concept. When we have a new client, our first task should always be building trust. Although our tendency may be to wow them with our technical expertise and the plethora of knowledge at our fingertips, we need to refrain. Building trust is far more important than demonstrating our expertise. No matter how much data we have, no matter how we spin the story, we will be completely ineffective if we are not trusted.

Consider this example: As a category manager working with the top salespeople in the company, I hired an analyst who had a fantastic background in sales. Unfortunately, he immediately launched into telling our sales team what they were doing wrong. He may have been right but he never established the trust that was needed. He became completely ineffective and we had to make a change.

Trust is so important; we can’t just assume it happens. We need to be intentional about building trust. So how do we do it?

David Maister has written a fantastic book on the topic (The Trusted Advisor) and he coined the phrase “Earn the right to be right.” In other words, you may be right but if you have not earned the right, it does not matter. You won’t be heard.

To earn the right to be right you need to first demonstrate that you are truly interested in helping, that you have the other person’s best interest at heart and that you know it’s not about you. Maister also says “. . . the motive that generates the greatest trust is genuine caring.”

Once we demonstrate we truly want to help, we have earned the right to be right. Then we can be much more effective and have a much more rewarding and successful relationship with that client. After all, as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

There’s even a formula for trust for us analytical types from Maister’s book:

T =  C + R + I

T = Trust
C = Credibility
R = Reliability
I = Intimacy
S = Self-orientation

Breaking down that formula, credibility and reliability are what we typically go to when thinking about how to build trust. Do you have the expertise? Do you have the experience? Will you do what you say? Of course these are important. But you might also say that these are the cost of entry. In fact, the creators of this formula say that the “I” or intimacy is the most important item in the numerator.

Intimacy refers to the ability to have empathy; to see another’s point of view. It is being authentic and open. It represents the extent to which others feel they can confide in you and feel safe in doing so. This feeling is what moves an interaction from a transaction to a relationship.

Many researchers feel like they are not heard and believe that an accreditation for market research professionals will somehow help build that credibility – that trust, if you will. They are concerned about DIY research and believe others do not quite understand and appreciate their skill.

Accreditation may be a nice way to develop and train new researchers but don’t count on it increasing your client’s or prospect’s trust in you. There is much more to do to build trust than demonstrating our technical skill. Our corporations are filled with fantastic researchers who are not heard because they are not trusted advisors. I have had many CMOs and CEOs ask for my opinion but I have never had one ask me for proof of technical skills or about the analytical approach we used for any particular study. They assume your competency is there.

Touting our skill or accreditation doesn’t work – because it’s not really about us.

Take another look at the formula and note that self-orientation is in the denominator. When we focus on our skills, on how good we are, we can damage trust. The more we focus on ourselves and not our client, the more we run the risk of decreasing damaging trust. Remember, it’s not about showing how smart we are. It is about doing all we can to help our client.

The following are things we might do that fall into the S category:

  • We want to look like the expert – we make it about us.
  • We don’t have the time to really understand the issue so we recommend a standardized approach that we can do quickly.
  • We have a desire to be right or to look smart.
  • We have a lot of other projects so we select the quick-and-easy path to execute.
  • We try to move off a project too quickly because we underbid the hours – before the client gets what they need.

Conversely, there are things we can do to overcome the self-orientation:

  • Ask a lot of questions about the issue – make sure you really understand it.
  • Restate the issue and the decision the client faces to ensure you truly understand.
  • Do not jump too quickly to a solution or methodology, even if a methodology is apparent.
  • Ask to see and read other background material so that you can better understand the situation. Read it and perhaps ask questions about it.
  • If on the supplier side, don’t shortchange the client if you underbid your hours. That should not be his or her concern and the client should not be penalized for it. Focus on delivering what is needed and use the learning to improve your bidding process.

Try posting this formula on your wall and think through how you can leverage each aspect.

Leadership begins to rely on you

In this article we’ve looked at three areas that are key to influencing decisions: logic, emotions and trust. So how will you know if you’re successful at influencing? I believe it’s when you can claim a seat at the table, when your input becomes necessary before any major decisions are made, when leadership begins to rely on you as the unbiased and trusted advisor. To me, when you’ve achieved this, you’ve realized the full potential of our profession.