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April 2024 Member Spotlight – Staci Nisbett, Vice President, Management Research Group (MRG)

A conversation with Shannon Minifie, Box of Crayons

The first answer is never NO: a chat with Staci Nisbett about client centricity at MRG

SM: For folks who aren’t already familiar with your business, can you share a bit about what MRG does, and a bit of the back story that’s led to the work you’re now doing at MRG?

SN: Our primary business is selling assessments to other coaches and consultants who use them in their business. That’s about 70% of our revenue, and the other 30% is a combination of selling our assessments directly into organizations and delivering executive coaching and leadership development programs.

I came to MRG a little over 14 years ago, and for a specific purpose: to run the rewrite of the software they were using to manage their assessments at the time. Customers refused to use the new version of the software system—they were furious! So I came in and oversaw and managed this huge change around getting MRG’s clients to use the system. And we accomplished that within 8 months, and with a newbie-ish software team.

MRG has been around for 40 years, but it’s been a very mum and pop organization in terms of how it’s run—something that I’m sure resonates with a lot of ISA firms. Since joining MRG, I’ve been able to change and develop processes and standardized ways of doing things that aren’t too confining but also help the business run and scale better

SM: This definitely resonates. So how did you end up in sales when you started out basically as a change agent in operations?

SN: So the other thing to know is that I’m a customer relationship person. I don’t come from a coaching or consulting background. I love understanding and interacting with customers, and I love a good process.

I actually started off at MRG managing customer service, and the more I was exposed to clients, the more I started to look closely at questions people were asking. I realized that we collected a lot of feedback, but we weren’t necessarily doing anything with that. We weren’t changing anything to address the needs of our clients, these consultants who need to position and sell and deliver our assessments to their clients.

I really think I helped to shift the mindset of the organization around how we engage client needs. We’ve come to accept that the first answer is never NO: the answer is “let’s talk.” You want to do XYZ with the assessment? Why? We now seek to understand what they’re trying to accomplish and often find that they’re taking a circuitous route, and we can see three different ways to get to what the client wants. And so we’ve become more consultative in working with and solving client challenges.

So I got more client-centric, and started the work of better understanding the feedback and the needs that were being raised, and then leading the work of making changes to suit those needs. Around then, Tricia asked me to lead sales, and now I manage client relationships, old and new.

SM: I love this commitment to understanding client needs, to becoming more client centric. I really like Peter Fader’s book on this topic. He really challenges the notion that being customer centric is about being nice to your customers. And it’s not about customer experience, and that it’s not about doing whatever they want.

True customer centricity, he argues, is a strategy. And it comes from the acceptance that the customer is NOT always right (my service industry background cringes at this one!) … but also that your best customer is always right.

He encourages organizations to really sit down and identify who the customers are that matter the most, and then realize that that’s whose needs you really want to understand and invest in solving. And as for the needs of everyone else, you want to just find the most low-calorie way to serve them. Because your resources should really be disproportionately invested in the right customers, and the right ones only.

SN: So, remember I said before that we have two different clients? The consultant/coach and the end user/selling directly into companies?

This is a model that has prizes and punishments, especially when it comes to understanding client needs.

When I joined MRG, there was a mandate that no more than 5% of business come from direct-to-organization sales—and this meant that our business model was both highly unpredictable and it sort of blocked our access to the end user. A full 95% of our business was conducted at a distance from the true/end customer.

We’re now selling directly into organizations about 30% of the time, so it’s much easier to see and hear the voice of the (end user) customer.

SM: So what’s on your mind these days? What changes are you seeing? What are you worried about?

SN: Assessments is a tough space to be in. It’s a flooded market, and what I’m seeing is that there’s not a lot of brand loyalty.

The consultants who sell and deliver our assessments—these days they’re certified in ALL of them (Leadership Circle, Hogan, etc)—and regardless of what a given consultant thinks about which assessment is the best, she’ll inevitably use the one that her client asks her to use.

SM: Ugh, yeah – that’s tough. And unpredictable and maybe feels difficult to influence.

SN: Yes, exactly. But so we’ve started to reconsider who we should be influencing. We’re now shifting from working on building brand loyalty (and even lead generation) within the consultant network, and instead have started to target the end user—the organisations these consultants sell into to generate demand. Ultimately, this will benefit both MRG and those “reseller” consultants as we’ll be able to send them referrals when that demand starts to kick in.

So we’re shifting from relying on consultants to sell us in, to marketing directly to the buyers in the businesses that will benefit from our assessments. How to get out there more? How to build the brand and brand recognition? How to make sure that when a head of HR is reaching out to a consultant, they’re saying they want the MRG assessment, they’re demanding it? Those are the questions we’re tackling right now.

We’re also hearing and responding to the desire for customization. So we’re focused on making the assessments more modular so people can piece things together. We’re calling this “configuration” versus customization—and it’s another example of where, in the past, we might have dismissed this out of hand (because as a matter of design, the assessments can’t actually be customized). But because we’re listening to and engaging in understanding and solving our clients’ challenges, we’ve found a way to allow our customers to tailor the presentation of the results in ways that better fit their unique needs.