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July 18, 2019

Spotlight: Alan Gray on the Importance of a Customer Insights Engine

Allan Gray

Alan Gray has been at Herff Jones for just over a year, but in that short time he’s managed to unlock some key findings in support of the organization’s journey to get to know the customers it serves.

In May 2018, Gray was hired to launch the Herff Jones customer insights team. And for a while, that team consisted of just one person.

He hit the ground running, touring the country to meet our customers and conduct focus groups, only to come home and dig into the data.

Prefacing the statement with “I know this sounds cheesy,” the director of customer insights will tell you how he stays motivated: He wakes up in the morning and falls asleep at night thinking about how we can improve our relationship with our customers. And if you know him, you know that passion is authentic.

We sat down with Gray to reflect on year-one as the lead of a new customer insights team:

Q: What exactly does a customer insights director do at Herff Jones?

A: It’s my job to accelerate enterprise value through the eyes of our customers. That’s my mission statement.

I’m not doing my job if I’m not representing the customer first. If I’m letting our business priorities inform how we respond to our customers, then I am doing a disservice to customer insights as a practice and to the organization. Rather, customer insights should inform how we respond as a business.

Q: What’s your background? Have you always been in a research role?

A: I’ve been in research and insights since 2009.

Early in my career, I spent nine years in an IT role at Eli Lilly and Co. But, my appetite just wasn’t satisfied by that work, so I went to grad school, which is where I was introduced to the world of customer insights and market research.

After that, I remained at Eli Lilly for a few years in a market research role leading their customer satisfaction program. Then, I moved on to Roche, where I held two different roles, one in business analytics and the other focusing on global market insights.

Q: Your position at Herff Jones is brand new to the organization. What drew you to this opportunity?

A: First and foremost, I’ve always had a passion around customers. I knew I had the background of market research, and I felt like the solutions I could bring to the table and the ways in which I could inform the strategy would be something the organization could really grow from. Rather than handling one piece of the puzzle, like you usually do at bigger organizations, I felt I would be able to see the fruit of my labor and the output of my work in action.

Additionally, this company has a vision and a mission that I truly believe in. We are truly a part of a moment that’s instrumental in the lives of students and their families.

Q: You’ve been in your role for just over a year now. What body of work are you most proud of?

A: There are two things, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to choose. The first is the business focus work we were able to do to revamp our soft goods product (Senior sweatpants, t-shirts, etc). The whole project, from the cross-functional support in the early stages to the design concepts to the promotional photoshoot, everything came together better than I ever could have imagined. And the results were off the charts – that product line saw an 87 percent increase year-over-year from last year.

The second one is less measurable. I can’t put numbers to it, but it’s equally as important. There’s been an internal shift in our organizational culture to be more customer-centric. I’m amazed at the type of information we’ve been able to gather around our core customers for the purpose of enriching their lives. Obviously, on a maturity scale, there’s always room for improvement, but we are moving in the right direction as an organization.

Q: With three boys at home, one being a teenager, do you find your research follows you home?

A: Oh, absolutely. I have a 17-year-old, a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old. We used a lot of these research methods to see what kind of personality each of our boys fit. They’re all different, and honestly, the research has helped us to solution and approach them in ways we wouldn’t have tried before.

Q: What’s surprised you the most throughout this past year of in-depth research with our customers?

A: The biggest “aha” for me is that customers have expectations for a personalized view of achievement. And quite often that view has nothing to do with academic accomplishments or school in general. They care about the first time they learned how to drive; when they made the basketball team or won sectional, and their part in that; or their memories of going to prom. That’s what they care about. Those are the things they want to remember most.

Q: What advice do you have for organizations embarking on their own journey of building a customer insights engine?

A: I encourage all employees, no matter their role, to leverage their customer insights team as they start to uncover more about the customer. Don’t be afraid to immerse yourself in that knowledge, especially if you’ve found you need to rebalance your focus and rediscover why it is you do what you do. The “WHY” is so valuable, and your customer insights team has that answer. Let them show you what matters the most to your customer.