Ensuring research taps into a wider demand :: How insight can help understand needs of customers in vulnerable circumstances

11th October 2017 14:15

The inaugural MRS Utilities Conference took place in London on the 21st September, and DJS Research sent a team of five to take in the day’s events – we even had a speaking slot, too. Matt Prince, one of our Research Managers who specialises in utilities research, penned his thoughts on the day…

The Utilities conference was a big deal for us at DJS Research. As well as having a number of clients in the utilities sector, a few of us are pretty well immersed in the sector each day. So, along with the opportunity to catch-up with some familiar faces and make some new contacts, this was a great chance for us to see what clients and agencies are doing to confront the challenges we regularly face when trying to conduct research in a marketplace that suffers from generally low engagement.


Ensuring research taps into a wider demand :: How insight can help understand needs of customers in vulnerable circumstances

Products & ideas designed to meet consumer needs 

Our team of five had all arrived the evening before, armed with banners, USBs, leaflets, lanyards and other bits designed to showcase our love for and expertise in the sector. The only minor hiccup on the road from Stockport to London was an eagle-eyed spot of a stray comma on one of our leaflets. This presented us with a dilemma; we couldn’t hand out the leaflets knowing that they weren’t quite right, but, equally we didn’t want the effort that had gone into the creation and design to go to waste.

This is where a bit of local knowledge came in handy, as Simon, one of our Research Directors who has recently relocated from London to join DJS Research, suggested we correct the mistake and take the soft-copy design to one of the (it turns out) many 24-hour printers in central London. To a couple of us, this seemed a faintly ridiculous idea, as we’re used to having to plan at least a few days ahead for such things, but sure enough, within 90 minutes Simon had returned, triumphant, with pristine, typo-free leaflets.

When listening to and watching the presentations the following day, this small dalliance with mild peril drifted back to me a few times – and it got me thinking about how organisations can’t just respond to the need of a few for an idea, product or concept to work; it has to tap in to a wider demand. For us in Stockport there simply isn’t the demand for a 2-hour turnaround printing service, but there is clearly a demand for printers. In London, the pace and the landscape is different and not only do (enough) people need a printer, they also need it now. And here is the challenge for our colleagues and clients who work in the utilities sector – do products, services and initiatives adequately address and meet customer needs? Or, as I have feared at times in the past, do they actually meet an internal tick-box need, while simply paying lip service to the customer?

Thankfully, the tone of the day from both clients and agencies showcased the efforts that we as research and insight practitioners will go-to to truly put the customer at the heart of a business…


Ensuring research taps into a wider demand :: How insight can help understand needs of customers in vulnerable circumstances

Putting customers at the heart of an organisation’s decision making

“Harnessing insight to drive engagement with vulnerable customers”, a presentation by Andy Barker, alongside Iain Pilling of United Utilities, showcased this step-change in thinking. They told the story of how they had conducted human-centred, qualitative research with United Utilities customers to really get under the skin of what their customers’ lives were like.

The research was then combined with quantitative data to turn the issues faced by a few people they had spoken to into solutions to help a significant number of customers. The end result was the creation of Town Action Plans that helped customers confront debt and other issues. The approach to the research itself might not have been entirely new – but it was impressive to hear the ways in which the research was used to specify that the needs of a few could have a wider purpose.

Then, looking at things more introspectively, the keynote speech – delivered by Simon Thompson from the insight sector and Nick Eves of EDF Energy - titled: “Embedding research and insight at the heart of the business to meet market challenges & drive customer centricity” was illuminating in the ways they had challenged their own thinking as to whether the right questions were being asked of themselves, their data and customers to be able to truly focus on that wider customer demand principle. By combining existing data with behavioural insights and new projects, the teams were able to identify what they term ‘the Seven Dimensions of Engagement’, which can then be used to identify wider needs.


Of course, it would be remiss not to mention the involvement of our own Ali Sims, who presented findings and outcomes from a recent project Ensuring research taps into a wider demand :: How insight can help understand needs of customers in vulnerable circumstanceswe conducted for Yorkshire Water, where we spent a number of weeks talking with and listening to customers in vulnerable circumstances. 

Both we and Yorkshire Water recognised that customers from a whole range of places and backgrounds can find themselves in vulnerable circumstances at any given point in their lives. As researchers, I think we can sometimes be guilty of applying labels (or segments) to customers without fully understanding the nuance and complexity of circumstance. And it was this piece of research, more so than most that I have been involved in recently, that made me take a step back and think about the vital importance of truly understanding customer needs. To get a copy of the conference report, or to speak to Ali more generally, please email her on asims@djsresearch.com, or feel free to give us a call on 01663 767857 and one of us will be happy to have a chat!


To close then, I’ll ask you a question: Does your research and insight regularly identify those key needs and separate it from the extraneous noise? At DJS Research we’ll carry on trying to better understand our clients and their customers in order to deliver meaningful and actionable insights.

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