Behavior experts offer biz edge, but see niche demand

Employees with no IT backgrounds, such as psychologists and sociologists, help some companies make better sense of user behavior, say industry watchers, who add additional costs mean such hires will remain exceptions.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

There has been a shift in the consumer landscape, which has led to some IT companies to bring onboard professionals with no IT backgrounds such as psychologists and sociologists to better predict how people are purchasing products. However, they will remain as exceptions as the additional costs are difficult to justify, say industry watchers.

Anthony Ung, country manager of Singapore at recruitment portal JobStreet.com, said the consumer landscape has changed tremendously in the last decade and it is now abundantly clear that the survival of a company's products and services depends on it knowing what motivates buyers' final decision. It is no longer as simple as marketing by costs or tangible benefits, he added.

This is why he said it is "heartening" to see IT companies such as Singapore Telecommunications moving toward a more "human" aspect of product design and marketing. "Having an expert on human behavior will allow these companies to expand their views on how their products could be designed, made, marketed, and sold," Ung stated.

The JobStreet.com country manager was commenting on a Straits Times report in June citing SingTel as initiating a global hiring campaign looking specifically for behavioral experts as part of its drive to get to know its mobile customers better. The Singapore telco wants to know which Web sites their customers are visiting and how long they spend on each site, with the end goal of knowing their preferences in order to improve services, the report noted.

Costs not justified
Another industry watcher, Michelle Lim, pointed out that all businesses dealing with consumers need to understand people's behaviors when it comes to product or service usage and needs. The COO of JobsCentral added that having good insights into their customers' buying patterns are particularly important.

Companies had traditionally relied on using a mixture of marketing research tools such as focus groups and surveys, as well as data from internal and external research reports and consultants to gain the required information, Lim noted.

This is likely to continue despite companies such as SingTel hiring non-tech professionals to fulfill the role though, she added.

"I would say only a small number of companies would hire behavioral specialists in-house because few would have enough scope to justify the cost of the hire," said the JobsCentral COO. "For most companies it is often not feasible to do so and they either utilize their marketing or product teams to analyze consumer behavior or hire external consultants on an ad-hoc basis."

One enterprise agreed that it is more cost-efficient to engage third-party specialists to crunch the data and make sense of consumer behavior rather than hire in-house experts to fulfill the same role.

Telecommunications giant BT's Asia-Pacific spokesperson told ZDNet Asia that it currently does not hire non-tech employees such as psychologists or sociologists in its Singapore or Hong Kong offices as "there is no business requirement" to do so. Such hires, if needed, are considered on a case-by-case basis, the spokesperson noted.

Activities such as data crunching to gain insights into the various business functions and processes are considered "non-core functions" in business-to-business enterprises, and are usually outsourced to more skilled professionals outside the organization, he explained.

BT engages India-based Pipal Research to fulfill data mining and analyses functions, although the specialists are often based within its offices, the spokesperson added. 

That said, both Ung and Lim identified certain industry sectors that could tap on the benefits and expertise offered by these non-IT professionals. The JobsCentral COO, for one, said the military, large FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) companies such as Proctor and Gamble, and market research firms are possible destinations for such professionals.

Ung, meanwhile, pointed out that besides tech companies, service-related industries that have daily contact with end-customers are likely to hire such professionals.

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