Editor’s note: This article is the first in a WhereNext series dedicated to CXOs. Location intelligence is a brand of business intelligence that helps executives understand customers and business trends in locations around the globe. Throughout this article, we’ll explain how a CEO can turn location intelligence into business advantage.
A chief executive officer establishes goals for the company and defines a vision for its future. Being responsible for success in a shifting, competitive environment can leave CEOs searching for new tools. One increasingly relevant tool is what Forrester principal analyst James McCormick calls an analytics-driven strategy.
Business leaders “need to embrace insights at scale,” McCormick said on a recent podcast. “We need to have data and analytics technologies that deliver strategic value, not just the typical ROI kind of value. And that value needs to differentiate us. So we need to understand our businesses, our customer, our processes in such a way that it delivers this differentiation.”
Location intelligence can be key to helping a CEO define that differentiation. Location intelligence comes from analyzing business data in a geographic context—for instance, the location of sales, the online spending habits of consumers in cities around the world, or regulations and events that affect supply chain decisions.
In short, location intelligence brings clarity to local, national, and global trends. A location intelligence strategy supports many of the CEO’s major responsibilities, including recognizing and adjusting to patterns in sales, service, and efficiency across corporate locations, as well as anticipating global market movements and demographic shifts. The engine behind location intelligence is a geographic information system (GIS)—technology that analyzes and organizes information on smart maps and dashboards.
A CEO can monitor the patterns revealed by location intelligence on a GIS dashboard that updates sales trends, customer characteristics, population demographics, supply chain costs and efficiency, and the company’s reputation.
“Peter Drucker, the internationally renowned management consultant, once said the purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer,” says Thomas Horan, dean of the School of Business at the University of Redlands in California. “To serve those customers well, CEOs must have both a strategic as well as a tactical understanding of where the business is in the marketplace and how it is performing.”
In this opening article in WhereNext‘s series on location intelligence for the C-Suite, we explore how location intelligence can support the major responsibilities of a CEO, drawn from real-world situations and case studies.
Monitor and Respond to Business, Economic, and Societal Trends
By analyzing millions of data points that affect production, sales, or transportation—from shifting workforce demographics to changing markets and weather patterns—GIS technology distills big data into CEO-level insight. Smart maps provide real-time status reports on trends and conditions that are important to improving current business and planning long-term strategies.
In the manufacturing sector, the trend of declining car ownership provides a useful study in how a CEO might apply location intelligence. Navigating a trend of such significance—with its threat to business models and its board-level visibility—demands reliable intelligence and a well-tuned strategy. A CEO can map out insight from global markets and submarkets to understand how, where, and at what pace consumer preferences for automobiles are changing. With that intel, a business leader can adjust the business model to outpace competition.
Across industries, GIS empowers analysis and action through executive-level dashboards that monitor:
- Trends and risks in locations around the world, providing situational awareness of current and potential markets
- Risk factors or opportunities related to changes in political, cultural, or economic patterns
- Market indicators, including fluctuations in monetary systems, regional or local economies, stock markets, and interest rates in regions around the world
- Social media trending topics that reveal consumers’ concerns about the economy, business, or society
Location intelligence guides competitive decisions by illuminating an area's demographics, including age, gender, education, income, and even nuanced data such as entertainment preferences.
Develop and Sustain a Deep Understanding of the Customer
CEOs must comprehend changing customer expectations and respond with new or modified products and services.
For the founder and president of a large furniture retailer in the Midwest, the early days were driven largely by intuition. But as the business grew—today it ranks among the category’s top retailers in the country—the scale and size of its investments demanded greater rigor. That’s when the CEO turned to GIS-driven location intelligence to understand who and where the company’s customers were.
With GIS data that gave him a deep understanding of not just who his best prospects were, but where they were, the young chief executive piloted an expansion that continues to this day. “Having some additional data to fine-tune [my] instinct was very, very beneficial,” he says.
Likewise, when executives at one of the nation’s largest fast-casual restaurants sought to roll out an app that would allow customers to order food on their phones, location intelligence played a key role. For the pilot phase, the company could have simply chosen markets where sales were highest. But the executives dug deeper. Using GIS-powered analytics, they mapped out the cities that showed strong sales and high digital adoption rates. The analysis—which revealed what percentage of people in each city had recently used their phone to make a product purchase—fostered a richer understanding of customers than most executives enjoy. With that insight, the company adopted a data-driven strategy for rolling out its new service, maximizing adoption and minimizing wasted marketing spend.
Grow the Business and Fend Off Competitive Threats
“A senior executive’s job is to look outbound at the market and pay attention to the competitive stance of the company and its future as a viable entity,” reports Brian Kilcourse, managing partner of RSR Research, in an upcoming podcast.
The tricky thing about competition is that it changes. In the utilities industry, for instance, competition was practically nonexistent before deregulation efforts in the 1990s. After the dust of that upheaval settled and utility CEOs had recalibrated their market strategies, the ground started shifting again. This time, democratization is the culprit, as individual homeowners, residential collectives, and businesses generate their own power through solar and wind sources. Forward-looking utility CEOs are using location intelligence to understand where that competitive threat exists as well as to plan how to get ahead of it.
In retail, manufacturing, and other industries, intelligent mapping gives business leaders a sense of how specific areas are changing—whether residents or visitors are beginning to skew to an older demographic, display different lifestyle choices, or favor competitor brands. A CEO’s dashboard can track location-based insight such as planned competitor locations and markets where rivals are reshaping product lines.
Some chief executives take a more direct approach, enlisting services that use artificial intelligence (AI) to interpret satellite images and reveal trends among competitors. Others fly drones over rivals’ facilities or fields to understand production levels and techniques. (To learn more about business applications of AI, read this e-book.)
All this data, at local and national levels, feeds into executive decisions about how to allocate corporate resources to expand and develop offerings.
Determine How and Where to Allocate Resources
One large retail chain used location intelligence from GIS to analyze its supply chain and cut its number of service centers by more than half, creating major improvements in customer experience and profitability.
“At one time, the company had almost 50 service depots across the US,” explains Avijit Sarkar, a business professor at the University of Redlands. “They were sending out delivery technicians to service their products at millions of households in an almost haphazard way, because they had not managed this part of the business well.”
With the bottom line suffering from those inefficiencies, the CEO and executive team enlisted GIS—which they had long used to support market development—to help optimize the service and delivery supply chain. They mapped out the locations of customers, technicians, and supplies, and analyzed metrics such as:
- Customer delivery and service routes, including time-sensitive deliveries
- Fuel and maintenance costs
- Accident reports and costs per route
- Driver and service personnel salaries and benefits
- Regions of anticipated customer growth
The resultant maps revealed efficiencies that human planners couldn’t possibly have calculated at a national scale. The executive team reduced the number of service depots to 22 from 46, Sarkar says. “Imagine the effect of that. You are servicing the exact same geographies spread all across the US with half the number of offices [and] a significant reduction in truck drivers and fuel costs.”
When CEOs analyze opportunities for business expansion, location intelligence gives them confidence that a new market will support the company's product or service.
Develop and Promote the Best People and Best Practices
In a bustling economy, talent acquisition and retention are CEO-level concerns. To perform reliable long-range workforce planning, a CEO must be alert to hard and soft data about where talent is moving and emerging, and how the company might harness it.
Location intelligence plays a substantial role in that effort. A CEO might map out quantitative data, such as the results from a recent study documenting the migration of millennial professionals to big cities. But just as important is location intelligence drawn from softer data, some of which can signal emerging trends.
James Fallows, longtime contributor to The Atlantic and a former presidential speechwriter, recently published a book highlighting small cities that are driving innovation in America. Reflecting on his travels to those cities, Fallows told WhereNext that executives should consider seeking talent in unexpected places. As evidence, James cited “a wave of young, technically savvy people wanting to live in, be part of, and help create a real place. Not just to be one more person in the Bay Area scrum, but to be helping to build Fresno or Spokane or Duluth or Greenville or any of these other places.”
Business leaders can use GIS technology to spot those demographic shifts before competitors do.
Location intelligence also helps CEOs pinpoint notable talent and practices within a company. A C-level dashboard might display the locations of the highest rated peer-reviewed employees in a global company, and spotlight product development groups that contribute the most to revenue.
With that location intelligence, an insights-driven CEO can ensure that best practices are captured and continually refined and that high performers are encouraged, promoted, and retained.
Ensure that the Company Workforce and Culture Reflect the Diversity of the Customer Base
Today’s forward-looking CEO aims to create a workforce that reflects the demographics of the markets the company serves. In this pursuit, productivity is as much a driver as principle. A 2013 study highlighted in the Harvard Business Review found that companies with diverse workforces are 45 percent more likely to report that their market share expanded year over year.
The goal is to foster a culture that draws ideas from a rich group of workers whose outlooks reflect the interests, concerns, and subtleties of the consumer population. The upshot: diverse workforces innovate and perform better than their peers, according to the study’s authors.
To convert this business philosophy into practice, an executive team can create user personas that embody the traits of key customers. GIS technology has guided that process for decades. “Bethany” might be a working mom with high disposable income, high expectations for customer service, and loyalty to brands with sustainability programs. “Tyler” could be a young minority working in the financial services industry, with a keen awareness of changeable trends in pop culture. Smart mapping can reveal where those and other key groups work, live, and play.
A CEO can make sure the company’s workforce and product mix represent those key customers as well as future ones.
Protect and Strengthen the Company’s Reputation in the Marketplace
A company’s reputation can crash overnight upon the news of a customer data breach or an executive’s inappropriate behavior. Recent inductees to this dubious club include Theranos and Cambridge Analytica.
For most companies, though, reputation ebbs and flows in much subtler ways, across channels almost too numerous to count. Consider the impact one Tweet can have, coming from someone with significant influence. Then consider the breadth and complexity of all the Tweets directed toward a company. Nike, for instance, was mentioned 2.7 million times over two calendar days in September 2018. And those are just Tweets.
Peter Buell Hirsch, global consulting partner and reputation and risk lead at Ogilvy, touts the role of “influencer maps” in helping executives understand where notions about a company or industry originate. A combination of GIS technology and sentiment analysis can create these maps, sifting through millions of real-time indicators to reveal signals worthy of a CEO’s attention.
The location-aware CEO can use GIS to track other markers of influence too—anything from sales in specific markets to regional net promoter scores (NPS) to feedback from frontline sales and service employees.
If low scores crop up in certain locations, executives can analyze whether the discrepancy relates to the company’s professionals, its customers, or both. Pinpointing the cause helps prevent the problem from developing elsewhere. In this way, location-based insight helps a company improve products and services and enhance its reputation as a responsive and forward-looking enterprise.
Create a Location-Aware Enterprise
Jeff Bezos, who has led Amazon since he founded the company in 1994, said in a 2017 interview that his job as CEO is to make a few big decisions each day. For any chief executive aspiring to Amazon-esque success, the advice is instructive. But it’s also incomplete.
After all, making a few significant decisions each day is possible only when good intuition meets good data. And finding good data—strengthened by location intelligence—takes a focused effort by the CEO and executive team. In the words of business school dean Horan, “CEOs should create a culture that makes location intelligence a trusted resource in the C-suite.”
The above guide offers a framework for how CEOs might apply that insight. They would be well-served to act soon. In 2018, Forrester’s McCormick says, most companies can survive without an insights-driven strategy, but that won’t be true for long.
“You can still work, you can still compete, you can still exist,” he explains. “But you’re rapidly losing market share, or you’re certainly losing your competitiveness in the market. And there will be a time between now and . . . around 2021 where if you don’t have A) an insights-driven strategy, and B) if you’re not somewhere down the road, you would have lost the race already.”