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Clearworks Conversations: The Value of Customer Insights

Our Clearworks Conversations Blog Series features interviews with leaders who we feel have a unique perspective to share. In our second blog post of the series, Clearworks’ Noël Adams interviews Nicole Gayney, Experience Design Research Manager at Ford Motor Company about the value of customer insights.

Noël: How did you get into your field of consumer insights?  What drew you in?

Nicole: I have a PhD in Media Psychology which is kind of a unique PhD.  There is only one school in the United States that offers it right now and it focuses on the marriage of how we interact with media and technology and what it does to us on a psychological and social level. As I started working my way through school, one of the options that I had was to direct my talents towards more insight-oriented things.  It turned out to be a really good fit for me because that allows me to use all the different skill sets that I have including a psychology aspect and a sociological aspect.

Also, I have always enjoyed understanding more about what drives people to make decisions and behave in the ways that they do.  And specific to the automotive industry I am really excited about the transformation that we are in right now, the combination of automobile technology and how it is going to really change not only how we use automobiles to get around and to live our lives but also the buying patterns that are going to start emerging as we start putting this new technology in front of people. I love what potential cars represent in the wide world of mobility that is rapidly changing.

Noël: On that note, what do consumer insights do for you at Ford?  What do they do for your company?

Nicole: They give us a direct line into what customers are thinking.  They allow us to kind of say, “hey if you had a magic wand what would you make and why and how could it serve you better?”  Because we are nothing if we don’t have customers to buy our products which I know is kind of an obvious statement but, if you think about it, there is a big social shift now. Kids get cars earlier, sooner and the way they get the cars is different. When we were back in high school it was a big deal to get a car at sixteen.  It was a big deal to get a truck and it was always a beater and all this other stuff.  That is not the case anymore.

I think as a company we need to understand that shift not only from a psychological point of view but from a sociological point of view.  So, the more we talk to our customers and the more we understand how they are handling this change I think the better we can do with creating products that really fit their lifestyles and needs.

Noël: If you were talking to another company and they said, ‘we are considering using insights in the innovation process but we are not really sure if we should’, what would you say to them?

Nicole: Do it! Insights are what allow us to get it right for our customers.  Insights create empathy.  Insights create understanding.  If you are not using insights, you don’t really know what your customer wants because you are designing what you think they need – and what people think they need and what they actually need aren’t necessarily the same thing almost all of the time.  So, I would strongly encourage them to get into it.  Get stakeholders on board, get your CEOs on board, get your executives on board.  In this market it is not really an option anymore.  I think it is something that you have to do in order to drive growth at your company and create things that people want and need.

Noël: Talking about the stakeholders, how do you get them excited about insights?  How do you engage them in the insights process?

Nicole: One of the biggest realizations that I have had over the last couple of years is that insights mean different things to different people.  So rather than saying I want to get them excited about insights, my goal is to get them excited about connecting with customers – because that to me is more important.  You are more likely to get excited about creating something for someone if you know who they are as a person and you understand what they are looking for.

The other thing I generally use to sell it is, “hey, research and insights are creating a direct line between us and the customer.”  There is no filter.  We actually have the chance to sit and talk face-to-face with these people and understand what is important to them and that is the most important thing that we can do as a company and as researchers and analysts.

Noël:  At what point do you get stakeholders engaged?

Nicole: Early and often.  One of the first things that I do when I sit down with a new project team is say, ‘we’ve got to get all the stakeholders in here because they have to be on board with us’.  From a price standpoint it does cost a lot of money to do research and getting these insights can take time, but it is healthy for the company and for us to engage in research.  The sooner we get them on board the more fruitful the process will be.  Discussing things sooner helps lay out clear expectations of not only what we can find out in the process but what the research methodology needs to look like.  So that is why I am always very stakeholders first, stakeholders first, stakeholders first.

Noël:  So you get them involved early and then you do the research process.  Afterwards, what do you do to make it actionable in your company so it is not just a research report or a set of findings? 

Nicole: We have to have actionable insights because our products, particularly at Ford, are people focused.  We are constantly looking to find that new way to convey our findings in ways that are meaningful to our internal clients.  I give a lot of credit to relationship building because when you involve your stakeholders early and often you kind of get a sense of what makes them tick.  An example of this would be I have one client who is very numbers focused so all he wants to see are X, Y and Z, here are the numbers, this this this.  But then I have another one who likes to sit and watch videos and look at the raw data. So, what is exciting to one stakeholder may not necessarily be exciting to another one, so the more you get to know them, the more you involve them in the process, the more you build these relationships, you can tailor a deliverable that is going to be meaningful to them.

Noël:  Do you have any tips you would offer for teams who are trying to make sure they get the most value out of consumer insights?

Nicole: I have three things that I would put forward.  The number one thing is you want to listen to your clients, you want to build those relationships.  Sometimes they may not necessarily understand where they are going so the more you create trust with them, the more they are going to rely on you to do the right thing and to find the right information.

Make sure that you understand what the real goals and objectives are for a research event.  This is something that I came up against a lot early on in my career because they would say to me, we want to find out X, Y and Z and then later on I would find out down the road when I hand the report back to them, well we wanted to know A, B and C too.  Okay well you didn’t really ask me for that.  It’s hard to say.  Was it because I didn’t listen or because they weren’t explaining it to themselves, but that kind of thing circles back to the whole relationship building.  The more you know and the more comfortable you are with your clients the better you’re going to be able to interpret what they’re telling you.  So that really helps a lot with the understanding of goals and objectives.

The third thing that I would say is that we cannot as researchers and analysts be afraid of educating and really helping our clients understand how research works.  If you don’t do research it can be easy to dismiss it as ‘oh you go talk to people for a day and you come back’ and that is not the case at all.  So, the more that we take time to actually work with our clients to understand the process and understand the value and how research works overall… I always say, ‘better education is better insights’.  So, the more we work with people to help them understand things, the better off we can be as a whole because we have a better understanding of what their goals are.   And I love the creativity that comes with that.  I don’t necessarily think of myself as just a researcher or just an analyst.  I also think of myself as an educator because I want people to understand how we talk to clients and customers and not just ‘hey we talked to a customer and here’s what we found out’.


We love chatting about what we do. Reach out if you want to chat about how you could use customer research to inform your strategies!

Sara Dougherty

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