Research that combines flexibility, open-mindedness and rigour is critical for future success.
Like the sectors it serves, the research and insight industry is undergoing a period of rapid change driven by technological innovation and the constant demand of clients to improve their understanding of customers.
IFF Research has a long history of marrying new methodologies to more established approaches to provide clients with penetrating insights, and to map out the most effective way forward as a business and service provider.
This can range from integrating client companies’ internal operational data with survey responses to identify and address business weaknesses, through to online focus groups, app-based video diaries and social media monitoring.
Alistair Kuechel, director for financial services and regulation, believes being open-minded is critical to ensuring insight needs are met, explaining: “We are a full service agency, covering all parts of the insight jigsaw, quantitative and qualitative, all tailor made to meet the needs of our clients.
“We are methodically neutral and consider all the methodologies to tailor the best solution that meets the client’s needs. We don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to research design.”
One of IFF’s core areas of expertise, and one undergoing fundamental changes of its own, driven by new technology and changing consumer habits, is financial services.
IFF’s clients operate across the full range of financial sectors, but one key area of focus is supporting those in the pensions and long-term savings market which is in a state of seemingly perpetual change.
Relaxation of private pension rules has given the over-55s more freedom over their retirement choices, but also increased the risk of making poor decisions.
The statistics and news coming out of the industry show how increasing numbers of people are taking advantage of the new freedoms, but the statistics alone do not tell the whole story.
IFF has conducted ground-breaking detailed research, based on exploratory focus groups, for its Retirement Choices report, which shows how participants have become more engaged with their pension options, but also identifies clear areas of consumer concern.
Many people have been left confused and worried about their options, sometimes leading to choice paralysis in the face of what one participant called “the fog of retirement”.
The wide-ranging study shows an unmet need and desire for low-cost, trustworthy and impartial sources of regulated advice tailored to individual needs rather than simply generic guidance.
Many participants made it clear they wanted personal advice, focused on customer outcomes rather than selling products and ideally provided face to face, although they were open to the idea of using Skype or webchats to talk to advisers.
However, the IFF study also recognised the potential impact of robo-advice services that use algorithms to analyse customers’ data and provide regulated financial advice on how best to use pension savings.
Although robo-advice currently accounts for a small proportion of the market, its use is growing and competing with human advisers, bridging the advice gap for consumers who would not necessarily have sought professional expertise previously.
When IFF asked over-55s for their views, many remained cautious about robo-advisers and artificial intelligence, and concerned about how their data might be used.
The study showed that while many people already use government and private sector websites as research tools, most are yet to make the leap to using an automated advice service.
To address their concerns, robo-advice providers should be communicating that they offer fully regulated advice that is easy to use, at a low cost, and is fully tailored to their individual situation and financial needs.
Chris O’Brien, IFF associate director for financial services, says: “As far as robo-advice goes, at the moment there is still a lot of suspicion from people. They still like to talk to someone they feel they can trust. It has not yet reached a tipping point where it has gone mass-market.
“But we know from experience in other parts of financial services that digitisation and automation will continue to develop. People don’t think twice now about going to a price comparison website for insurance, though there is still a role for face-to-face insurance brokers.”
One of the lessons from the explosion in online financial services is that companies need to be prepared to invest in understanding their customer’s evolving expectations, to be able to develop and implement new service offers swiftly.
Doing so will leave them well placed to steal a march over the competition when robo-advice reaches a tipping point and moves from being a niche area used by early adopters to a mass-market tool that is part of the everyday retirement planning process.
IFF is well placed to support financial service providers in this regard. Since its foundation in 1965, IFF has adopted new techniques and new technologies while retaining a core belief in the fundamentals of research – exploring human interaction to understand human behaviour and emotions. Indeed, one of IFF’s core values is “being human first”.
The insight gathered by IFF complements the wealth of big data generated by clients which shows patterns of customer behaviour.
Mr Kuechel adds: “Big data tells them what is happening, but there is a clear role for insight-driven research to understand why things are happening. We triangulate our findings with the data our clients generate. When you marry the two, you get more nuanced understanding of customers.”
IFF Research has private and public sector clients across a wide range of sectors, including Ethex, Swinton, The People’s Pension, NFU Mutual, AON, Travelers, HMRC, FCA, Competition and Markets Authority, Pensions Regulator and DWP.
IFF is constantly pushing at the boundaries in the market research industry and scanning the horizon for movements in its clients’ markets.
Mr Kuechel concludes: “There are exciting developments in our industry and in our clients’ industries. Our role is to enable them to plan for the future by helping them to understand their customers.”
The full Insight Economy special is available to download here