Cliff Jumping with Clients

When you hear a story of a company that started at the kitchen table and grew into a $100 million plus business the first thought that comes to mind is a tech company in Silicon Valley. However, this story is about a market research company that uses customer centricity as a primary catalyst for innovation. The aspiration of this firm? — to become the dominant data collection platform out there – period.

I recently had the opportunity to spend time with Steve Schlesinger, CEO of Schlesinger Associates to discuss the issue of business transformation, how the Schlesinger team achieved it and what the future holds. For Schlesinger, transformation is the end result of four key principles – customer centricity, continuous evaluation of business processes, ensuring the right people are in the right jobs and learning to fail faster.

Every great business has a tipping point. For Schlesinger, a company that was founded by the family matriarch in 1965, the tipping point occurred in 2011. Malcolm Gladwell defines a tipping point as the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point – that moment where change accelerates beyond expectation and has a dramatic impact. In 2011, the executive team convened for a discussion about the future. The team knew they had already built a great company. The company had grown every one of its 48 years with one exception – 2009, a year where revenues were flat – and a year most of us in the business world would like to forget. What the team struggled with was how to dramatically grow the company to levels well beyond its current revenue. The answer wasn’t in the room that day but the decision concerning how to find the answer was. Schlesinger held a summit, 25 leaders from around the industry. Clients, business partners and those knowledgeable about the industry participated in a day-long meeting with the first half of the day devoted to understanding trends in the industry and the second half focused on a single question – “If you were in our shoes, what would you do?” The answers formed the foundation of the strategy that Schlesinger now follows and is the reason the Schlesinger team wakes up every morning knowing the best days for the industry and their firm lie ahead.

Customer centricity is a phrase that is bantered around a lot but often poorly defined. For the Schlesinger team, it means digging deep to understand how they can best help their clients solve problems. According to Steve, there isn’t a magic bullet for achieving customer centricity. It takes continuous dialog and a commitment to make customer input part of the foundation of decision making. It is a two way street. Customers continuously tell Steve they value that Schlesinger is always bringing them new ideas - ways to make their data collection process more efficient, new tools and techniques available that drive deeper insights as well as the professionals who know how to use them. At times the Schlesinger team and the client mutually decide to “jump off a cliff together” trying something that might or might not work but offers great potential. This mutual act of courage stretches the envelope of ideas for what its clients will value. It is one antidote to becoming obsolete.

Looking at business process through a different lens – Constant re-examination of how work is completed is essential to transformation. In the case of Schlesinger, ongoing process innovation is driven by the establishment of close interactive working relationships with the insight provider (a full service market research firm or a consulting boutique), the end client and the Schlesinger team. This inter-dependent relationship paradigm is the key to achieving successful outcomes for clients and allows Schlesinger to anticipate needs of clients rather than simply react to requests for data collection. Perhaps even more importantly, this also allows Schlesinger to understand how the needs of their clients are evolving and stay ahead of the evolution curve.

The right people – At times a business cannot be transformed unless new skills and talents are brought into the firm. The importance of leadership in new areas that brings deep expertise in that area cannot be understated, nor can the cultural upheaval this can cause in a tight knit group of people who often see themselves as a family. Over the past three years, Schlesinger has brought in more than 12 senior individuals with expertise in areas where it previously had no or very limited expertise. The decision to move in this direction was key to getting on the path of growth acceleration. Organic internal change would have been too slow. Today, there is a great blend of “new” and “old” with long time members of the Schlesinger team seeing the benefits of external input.

Learning to fail faster – One of the most interesting points of the conversation with Steve Schlesinger was his attitude toward failure. Steve and his team continue to transform quickly and with that, the recognition that failure will happen. However, in his mind, one of the most important elements to infuse within the culture of the organization is permission to fail - “we can’t fear this.” However, the skill elusive to many, is knowing when to walk away from a new person, product, service or process. Steve believes there is great learning in failure but human nature is often to not accept failure and keep working until ‘you get it right.’ This becomes a drain of resources – financial and human capital. Deciding to end an effort is part of making hard choices as a leader. Without failure there can’t be growth.

What’s the bottom line on business transformation at Schlesinger & Associates? Adopt customer centricity as your mantra, keep a constant eye on your business processes, hire the right people even if cultural friction results and learn to fail faster. It is how you make a market research company look more like a maturing Silicon Valley business enterprise.

Schlesinger Associates is a leading market research services provider. With offices strategically located across key markets the US, UK, France and Germany, this talented team provides global solutions for the most challenging of qualitative and quantitative research needs. An uncompromising commitment to their clients’ study experience and research success sets them apart.