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Henry Ford was a smart man, and a great marketer. He said that if he'd asked people what they wanted, they would have said 'faster horses', but he knew better - suggesting that brilliance and progress comes intuitively, rather than by asking the customer what they want. It may have worked for Ford but, according to Kevin May, founding partner for marketing strategy firm Sticks, the idea that a customer strategy is even possible without proper insight is highly questionable today. This article is copyright 2013 The Best Customer Guide.

A part of the problem seems to be that the term itself has become abused. An insight has to be more than a notional premise for action. For an insight to be wholly valuable, it has to be at least five things:

  1. It has to be fresh
    A real insight shines a light on something that previously had been hidden or undiscovered. Stale ideas and axioms aren't the stuff of insight, they're odd bits of received wisdom and verbal rubbish that people in the marketplace and beyond love to share. You're not going to garner much of an advantage off that sort of starting point. And what's the point of a strategy, unless it's going to give you some sort of advantage?
  2. It has to be penetrating
    Superficial observations aren't insights, they're statements of the bleeding obvious. Insights go deep into the heart of the situation and land on something specific: the more precise the insight, the greater its capacity to help you reframe your perspective.
  3. It has to be relevant to the business
    There are lots of insights, but no matter how interesting and inspirational they may be, if they have no direct bearing on the business - and how to build it - then they will be of very limited use in achieving a commercial objective.
  4. It has to be more than just plausible
    It has to be probable. Just because it could be the case (in isolation) doesn't make it an insight. The more it coheres with all the other known facts about a situation, the greater the likelihood that it's actually true.
  5. It has to be capable of drawing predictions
    The reason why insights need to be fresh, penetrating, relevant to the business, and more than just plausible, is because their real value lies in the extent to which they can be used to infer what is going to happen.

"Strategy only exists as a future prospect. But sadly, too much of the work of strategy is done in the service of retrofitting and post-rationalisation. It's not hard to identify the crucial factors in a situation and how they all fitted together after the event, but sizeably less useful than doing that work before the play unfolds," said May.

And insights come in many different forms. They exist at the macro level, where cultural, economic and anthropological factors are coalescing. They exist at the category level down to the level of basic truths about products and services. And they exist at the individual level in the hopes, fears, loves and lives of actual and prospective customers. But wherever they exist, eventually it all boils down to people and raw human insight.

That's not to say that the way to get the best insights about people is simply to go and ask them. People rarely know what they want, what will make them happy, or even what they think; interrogating them directly usually makes for poor information about them. Ford's reservations were about the source of insights, not the value of insights themselves.

But to suggest that Henry Ford built his empire with nothing but vision and gut feeling is clearly wrong. His vision was fed by a deep level of insight into people's feelings about mobility, affordability, comfort and freedom, and in his ability to mobilise a modern workforce and factory.

Much closer to the truth of Ford's real genius is another of his quotes: "If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own". That is essentially what an insight does - and that is a customer strategy.