Meet Peter Harris
Peter Harris helps brands build authentic customer relationships by balancing the human touch with technology. With deep roots in research, marketing, and strategy, Peter has been pioneering customer intelligence on the agency side since 2000, guiding and growing organisations such as Potentiate (Globally), Vision Critical Asia Pacific, and Colmar Brunton, and supporting hundreds of customer-led brands. Peter is a Fellow of both the Australia Marketing Institute and The Research Society.
Who is Advantage Group?
At our core, we are a listening company, equipping businesses with the knowledge to respond effectively. We nurture companies on the path to improving performance through strengthening B2B engagement. Often, we think of ourselves as an integral link between supplier and retail partners, using data analytics and strategy consulting to ease the natural tensions that exist in any productive B2B relationship. In simple terms: we help businesses be better together. Learn more: https://www.advantagegroup.
This text has been edited for clarity.
Colin Wong: Hello everyone. This is Colin Wong from GreenBook. Welcome back to another episode of the Disruptive Insights, Asia Pacific interview series. In the last episode, we spoke to Dynata’s APAC team regarding what the new economy has actually created for brands, and consumer appetites for digital currency and what digital consumers really want these days.
Today, we are very lucky to have one of the most experienced insights veterans, Peter Harris from the Advantage Group International, joining us today to talk about strengthening B2B relationships through engagement during times of crisis and beyond. We will particularly focus on how suppliers and retailers are working better together.
Welcome Peter, it’s great to have you with us today. It’s been a while. So why don’t we catch up? Tell me about Advantage Group International and your position.
Peter Harris: Thanks. Colin. Nice to talk to you. I can’t believe that you call me a veteran or experienced these days – cause I feel it might just be due to the color of my hair or lack of hair, but it’s really nice to see you again. Thanks for all the work that you do at GreenBook and around the world, just selling the experience and value of research. I’ve always enjoyed chatting with you. Thanks for the opportunity.
I’ve got this great new role as Chief Research Officer for Advantage Group International. Advantage Group is the leading advisor of B2B engagement. The business was founded 30 years ago, well over 30 years ago now in Canada. The idea then was to kind of champion the belief that businesses work better together when they commit to active listening and also respond to each other’s feedback.
In some ways, that’s the ideal scenario for research, even though the idea wasn’t called research when Advantage started. It’s a really exciting company and a great role for me. As you know, since you and I have spoken many times over the years, one of the things that’s driven me is my desire to try and elevate the role of research and that these businesses be better together.
We do that at Advantage by designing and delivering engagement solutions that bridge the gap between listening and responding. And that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to kind of get right for a lot of my careers. So I’m really lucky to be here.
Colin Wong: Good on you, Peter. You refer to the time of crisis. Can you expand on that? I mean, how is this impacting your clients currently?
Peter Harris: Well, I heard last week, something which really stuck with me. Somebody said to me, that COVID and the pandemic over the last couple of years could be just the warm-up lap for what is coming at us over the next few years, which is a pretty scary thought, but I think as business people, we have learned and will continue to know how to adjust and continue to deal with crisis in our day to day. And I think that’s the reality. Be it supply chain changes, managing inflation, or managing costs, we really need to learn that we’re going to need to be able to adapt.
And there’s this dynamic that I’m seeing in business, which is the constant demand for growth which is butting up against this constant crisis. Somehow, within this kind of conflict right now, clients around the world need to also at the same time show that they care, be good companies, shift the culture, be an employer of choice, consider sustainability, and work out how to handle accelerated NPD and increased personalization.
It’s a lot of things to consider and very challenging to keep making good decisions. So there’s a lot going on right now in our clients’ world. And again, there’s never been a better way when you’ve got so much changing so quickly to listen to customers and be able to take action.
So that’s why I think we’re in really good space.
Colin Wong: Oh, absolutely. And I think it is quite fair to say the retailers and suppliers historically have a very combative relationship. And why do you want to improve that relationship and how they engage with each other? I mean, why is that important to you?
Peter Harris: Well, again, this is not just about me, but one of the things driving my career choices has always been demonstrating the value of research and understanding engagement because they can actually lead to stronger business results. I’ve been pushing research, effectiveness, and awards, everywhere I can, every role I have to try and prove the value because I know it is valuable.
And one of the challenges is that combative relationship you just spoke about, which is, when retailers and suppliers historically have spoken, it’s always been around margin. And I don’t think it has to be. In fact, we know that the relationship between retailers and suppliers around the world is very complex and evolving.
And the work we’ve done with many of the largest retailers and suppliers around the world, you can see that our conversation, which is not just around margin, but is more engaged, talking about business performance, talking about building empathy between each other – it can actually improve results. Executing simple, effective engagement and ongoing measurement around things other than just margin gives you conversations to have areas of improvement that you can make working with each other and setting goals of how are we going to improve outside of just the margin conversation and working towards achieving those goals. This improves relationships and business results, so it’s kind of like a win-win.
Colin Wong: I completely agree with you. In your experience, what factors are the most important when you look at building engagement and how do these actually differ from factors that are actually affecting CSAT (customer satisfaction), especially within B2C or B2B research?
Peter Harris: Good question. Well, Colin, prior to joining Advantage, I spent 10 or 12 years growing a community-driven business. And for me, that was mostly in the B2C customer engagement space. And that was about trying to change the dynamic that research had always been – answering a survey for me, or coming to a focus group. And then telling the respondents, thank you for your time, but we’ll never tell you what we’re doing with our results.
In our community, the world was fantastic and it was driven by active listening, providing a kind of promoting two-way feedback. And that was enormously fun. And we were really successful.
It was a great time. I really see B2C world evolving with many brands. You know, just really trying to fill out a dashboard when it comes to CSAT or making sure that the metrics are tracked and the dashboards are complete, or the projects are completed on time. And I also see frankly, increasingly smaller budgets being allocated to B2C with the advent of DIY, et cetera. And I’m not sure whether that’s really delivering strong value, most brands that I talk to and companies that I talked to track employees that do a good job of doing customer satisfaction, but the B2B work different. I still think it’s full of opportunities.
It’s fascinating that with the change of pace, the business changes that I spoke about before. Internally understanding supply behavior is critical to getting products on shelf or getting your products delivered on time, and understanding how to properly engage with those suppliers is not something that’s done enough.
So it’s kind of the third part of the three-leaf clover that completes the understanding. It’s really important. I think we demand in B2B work – compared to B2C – very strong response rates. We ensure that we’re working with lists that are provided by retailers or by supplies. These are the people we want to talk to.
So we’re not talking to robots, we’re not getting people not thinking about their responses. We’re getting retailers and suppliers committing to actively listening and considering each other’s feedback. So there’s an action planning that involves everything that retailers and suppliers do here is measured and a short list of things we need to do and then remeasurement – that’s how to actually get proper change. It’s the key. I think the B2B work is delivering much stronger ROI right now because they have a real commitment to taking action on what they’re learning.
Colin Wong: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we’ll only need to look at the last couple of years during the pandemic.
And we see all these changes actually coming out and companies are taking more responsibility and saying that, Hey, this is what we need to do in order to actually move forward, especially in this period of time and changing of the economy as well. So, we understand that businesses have been defending against questions like these, right?
And it’s just not one, it’s one after another. So bearing this in mind, what does success actually look like for businesses that choose to adapt and evolve in this critical or tumultuous environment?
Peter Harris: Good question. What we’re finding, what I see in B2B relationships is that COVID has had a significant and long-term impact on product availability and costs. Product availability and price, and increased discussions cause stress on B2B relationships. That is very clear. Focus is often just on operational issues. What am I going to do today? But we need to move. We need to provide an environment where we can talk about what we need to do today, but also how can we be better partners in the future?
So, especially in times of crisis, there’s never been a better time to listen to your business partners. Your suppliers ask and also provide feedback on that. So success looks like increased frequency of feedback, increased listening, and those two things in turn will actually allow you to foster better B2B relationships.
Now that the major storm may be over, re-enter discussions should not just based on product availability and costs. There needs to be a different conversation. And we know that in our normal life conversations, if you’re only just butting heads about the same issue that we often can’t do anything about, you can’t develop a relationship. You need to find other things that are important to be able to talk about.
So I think your success is measured by the level of empathy and satisfaction between B2B partners, and being able to create a platform and an environment for really strong, constructive dialogue that allows you to be upfront about where your strengths and weaknesses are – like in any relationship. This elevates the quality of relationships. Success really is about winning and not having to constantly negotiate around margin and price, and defining those things on the edges that are about how to be better partners into the future, and how can we actually prove each other’s reputation and be a company that is a supplier or retailer of choice.
Colin Wong: Absolutely. I mean, with this in mind, businesses will need to set aside funding to really invest in these engagements, you know? It is a quite significant investment, I will say.
What sort of return, what can they expect and how do these returns actually increases the resilience of the organizations that are defending against crises occurring in the world?
Peter Harris: Yeah, so we’re lucky enough to work with some of the largest retailers around the world across 48 markets and suppliers that are global, but also local suppliers.
We’ve found numerous case studies in our work way that improve supplier collaboration for retailers, for example, in turn. We kind of redeliver stronger net earnings and the recovery of net earnings. So we’ve worked with some retailers who have really been struggling as a business and just by improving, not just, but by improving their supplier relationships and, working better as a business, they’re actually turning around their company.
But so for me, it’s like this, this world, this Nirvana, where we have really shown that stronger engagement and business planning based on our strengths and weaknesses leads to actually better business outcomes. So this is a great space for me, and we know we can deliver. By really understanding what you’re good at and improving the relationship and engagement, you can have a much stronger financial standing. So that’s one bit of payback. We know that the other payback is that if you, as a retailer or as a supplier can build your reputation as someone that others want to work with, or as a supplier of choice or, or retailer of choice – that attracts more business.
So it’s the classic word of mouth: if you can improve your overall reputation as a company that everyone wants to work with, then people will actually come towards you, and that will reduce the amount of negotiation you need to do around margin often. So you build your own reputation and the rest of it kind of happens.
When we look at reputation and engagement, it’s very interesting. We look at four quadrants cause we are researchers. But two of those quadrants are focused on today, partnership and execution, and these are the easiest things to deliver ROI straightaway. You know, we need to fix this, we need to fix that. If we fix that, we’re gonna improve our results.
And we look at it longitudinally. So it’s really valuable to hear the year after year from the same people or month after month from the same people, we’re able to see where the winds are going to be in terms of the day-to-day, but measuring and tracking those kinds of attributes will help also our partnership into the future. So we look at reputation and vision.
What is the vision for the company? Increasingly we’re finding people wanting to talk about sustainability. Where do we stand in sustainability reputation compared to others?
The business environment is constantly changing. You know, really getting closer, and having a more frequent understanding of where your suppliers or brand partners are,, is critical, we think to successful engagement and we see it all the time.
Colin Wong: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, you only need to look at two of our biggest grocery chain stores in Australia, Coles and Woolies.
They’re both advertising every day at the moment, saying, Hey, we’re going to provide clean energy by 2025. They’re already prepping, basically you and me, or the cities in Australia, by saying that we are moving ahead with the times and with climate change, we need to do more.
So these are kind of the things that we need to look at for the future retail industry. So it’s good on them that we’re seeing that.
Peter Harris: Yeah, they’re both very serious about the issue. And, I didn’t miss that we just changed governments in Australia over the weekend.
And one of the critical things that was alleged, was not taking the whole sustainability and climate seriously. So it’s right there as an issue. We need to be able to understand where we’re at with that. And I think both the retailers you spoke about, I know they break it down into some really significant business or organization.
Colin Wong: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think if I remember correctly, for Cole’s that’s starting next month in June in New South Wales. At the moment, they’re getting rid of even the one-time plastic bag. So it means it no longer providing that. And I’m thinking about, wow, that is a huge move. If you don’t bring your own bags, you’re going to have to take a trolley out to your car because there are no bags for you to carry your groceries right?
Peter Harris: Yeah. This is about not only about packaging, it’s not only about planet and emissions. It’s about how we deal with waste around the world.
And it’s really great to see. I mean, it’s a very serious issue for most of our retailers and certainly the clients that we talk to. It’s still what globally is called an emerging capability, so we kind of need to move it away from an emerging capability to a core capability that you know, this is happening.
That is just as important as supply chain and everything else that retailers have become really, really good at.
Colin Wong: Absolutely Pete, thank you very much for all of that. Before we wrap things up today, there are a couple of questions that I wanted to get your own personal view on.
And by the way, just going back to your beginning comment that – you do have plenty of hair, mate. Anyone with over 20 years of experience, I will call them a veteran, and especially a man like you that has done so much for our industry in Australia and New Zealand. And of course, APAC as a region and globally, I think you deserve to be called a veteran, an insights veteran.
So let me ask you this first question here, mate. What are the most critical things that our industry really needs to do to continue to support, I suppose, wider or global businesses?
Peter Harris: Yeah. I think I’m a veteran, if you like, because I fell in love with this idea of businesses understanding their customers and understanding why they make decisions and they can therefore change their behavior to improve overall business results. I just think that’s like the thing that I learned years and years ago, which I really still truly believe in. So I think that what we need to do with businesses is make sure that everything that we do commits that premise to the business. You know, if they invest money in customer understanding or satisfaction or product development, whatever it is, it’s got to have an ROI. We’ve got to continually prove that getting a customer lens on these things is actually leading us to make better decisions, or for us to be able to sell more or make policy change, et cetera.
And that relies on a few things. It relies on actually the quality of people that we talk to, that we have inputs into this thing. So, you know, and this is not a spiel about the quality process or the kind of rules in place. This is about getting down to tin tacks and understanding who the people that are responding to us as an industry.
Weeding out all the kinds of robots and technology that kind of makes this a difficult situation. So for me, in the B2B space, we work with lists of people that were given to us, by the clients, their profile, we know them and that’s similar to the community world. They’re not robots and they’re actually real people that are actually feeding in.
And so we need to kind of commit to making sure that we care about that. And frankly, just making sure that we’re telling the stories that way and about the effectiveness of what we do. So if you don’t believe by investing money in consumer understanding leads to better, better outcomes, we’re dead in the water and we’re a long way from being that.
But part of that is actually being able to tell effective stories. So, you know, there’s been a lot of work done in the world, which is hidden in a PowerPoint slide or hidden in a database somewhere. We need better storytellers. Then there’s a lot of training, and that happening around the world in that space, but we’ve got to get serious about it.
We need to be able to tell effective stories and deliver them.
Colin Wong: Absolutely with that in mind, that with companies continually investing in research, do you expect that our industry will continue growing for the rest of the year? I mean, we’ve seen significant growth, especially I’m talking about from the perspective of recovering post-pandemic.
We’ve seen that this year is relatively doing well, even though we are halfway through Q2 at the moment, but we’re seeing growth within industry. Do you see that trend continuing for the rest of the year globally or even regionally?
Peter Harris: Yeah, I do. I think that locally, regionally, and globally, we’re going to continue to grow.
We’re so lucky. In 2013, I think Forrester said that we have moved from the age of information into the age of the customer. I believe that we’re still in that cycle and we will be as far as I can see, because I think the age thing was built around the customer having more power, being more connected, being able to tell people what they think about your brand, and it really empowers buyers to demand a new level of customer obsession. I think we’re still in that. And I think even more with all the things that are changing and constant crisis, you know, COVID being a warmup lap for the future, all the things that are changing in business at speed – the more consultation, the more customer listening, you can do better. It’s going to be because people’s preferences are changing so much, so we need to do more.
And then the third part of that is that we’re really lucky that we’re part of an industry and a profession that has always adopted technology to create efficiency. And we’ve got to keep doing that. The rise of ResTech has been scary, expensive, but fantastic for what we do. We, as an industry, continually adopt new technology and figure out what’s going to work better than we’ve done before to get efficiency.
Because by talking to customers more often and working with your suppliers, where we wanted to get five times more people – that can’t cost exactly five times as much. Where are the cost savings? Therefore the cost of this math can’t exist in business. We need to be able to find efficiencies and ways of handling open-ended data that is much more efficient than we’re doing now.
We need to evolve what we’re doing and bring it down to short, sharp bites of information that businesses can use. So I think as long as we keep doing those things, I think we’re in for good times. Everyone’s not going to grow at the same pace, but people that are doing the right thing, I think, and delivering value and telling impactful stories. I think we really get to continue to grow at least.
Colin Wong: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. I mean, it’s, it’s all about ResTech at the moment, isn’t it? Even if we look at the last two to three years during the pandemic, it’s all about ResTech. I mean, I can still recall years ago, not devolving any age, but looking back at our paper survey and filling them out in comparison towhat we have now by using almost any devices that you can hold, in taking a survey. There is a huge difference in that.
So, I mean, this is where, I guess you mentioned that previously you worked for a technology company. which is where you and I specialize: ResTech. I completely agree with you that this area will just continue to grow and most likely going to be dominant in our industry I would say.
Peter Harris: I think so. But you know what I’ve learned after the last 12-15 years, it’s actually not about the technology. People say that it is about the growth of ResTech and actually having that technology at your hands. But it’s reallabout making sure that we can use those tools to actually deliver impactful work.
In fact, I think we’re actually at a point where we’ve seen incredible growth of DIY. And really see the business point there. And certainly, when I was selling communities, I could see the point of DIY and the value that it’s delivered. But I actually think in some employee satisfaction work, people are starting to see reduced response rates because it’s the company asking for the employee response. I think where this world of independent companies doing it to really understand what you think, and tell me what you really think of an independent voice. I think we’re going to see that coming back a little bit, but the tools that are the ResTech industry is developing will be the ones that we use going forward to just be more effective at being able to tell those stories and be able to find people and engage with them in a way that they want to be engaged.
Colin Wong: Absolutely. Well, thank you very much Peter, on behalf of GreenBook, it is such a pleasure to have you on board today. We hope to gain all of the insights that are so critical to our industry. And I hope our audiences have enjoyed this interview as much as I have.
GreenBook looks forward to bringing more timely industry discussions and thought content leadership to everybody soon again. So, Pete again, thank you very much. It’s good to have you on board with us today, and I hope you enjoyed this interview. We shall speak soon, mate.
Peter Harris: I did. I enjoyed it very much. Thanks very much for the opportunity, Colin, and to the Greenbook team. And, yeah, I hope you enjoyed it. And, I’ll talk to you anytime, mate, whenever you like.
Colin Wong: Absolutely. You’re most welcome, my friend.