Conversations with Dale Preston

By Soong Hung Hao and Julian Rocero

Our world is driven by data, and the industry of client insights seeks to distil this data into key digestible, actionable points to drive growth. Dale Preston, a veteran in the field of data analytics and client insights, knows precisely how to identify the desires of consumers, and translate these insights into real growth. Currently Head of Client Insights at Standard Chartered, Dale takes us on a journey to explore the discovery of his passion for research, tips on building successful corporate and personal relationships, and the process behind building meaningful insights.

I am Dale Preston, and I head Client Insights at Standard Chartered for our digital platforms used by our corporate and institutional clients.

There is no such thing as a typical workday for me, as my work is inherently diverse in nature. Usually, there tends to be lots of meetings, where my role is to be the voice of the client. By representing the clients’ experience on our digital platforms, I communicate their perspective to other, perhaps less client-facing, stakeholders. This allows them to better grasp what exactly our clients are looking out for.

There have certainly been big challenges coming with this role, as the team I lead is also relatively new in conception. Besides the typical hurdles that come with building a new team, a key challenge has been the positioning of our team to ensure we are impacting decision making through insights. With 150-odd years of history, StanChart is a storied organisation that has established processes and ways of working. Because of this, figuring out how to ensure our clients are at the centre of everything we do and enabling our teams to act on our insights are not always easy. At the end of the day, it is about being focused on what makes the client happy. 

It consists of a wide variety of things. On the traditional side of research, we run a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey every month, and use it to explain our clients’ overall experience when using our platform. We can zoom in to look at different regions and client tiers, and examine their unique experiences as well. Also, we can look at detractors – industry jargon for people who are not particularly happy with the service. By pulling out their comments verbatim and filtering them through text analytics tools, we can digest and tackle the key drivers of detractors. Through this, we can improve our platform to better serve clients.

We also conduct in-platform surveys that appear on the bank’s platforms, to gather client feedback on particular elements of the digital experience. We then use Google Analytics to understand platform behaviour, click density, page views, dwell times, and the overall experience of clients on the platform.

If you are lucky enough to build a team from scratch, here is a piece of advice – building a team starts with the people you first recruit. We take a step back and assess our requirements, expectations, functions, and key skills. Once we have identified these elements, we start to carefully recruit against them.

While skills are most certainly important, I feel that the personality and attitude of the potential hire are much more important. Skills can be trained, seeing how smart people tend to pick things up easily. But a cultural fit, a fit that is going to work between yourself and the team, is truly integral.

A simple test I conduct when interviewing candidates is to imagine if I could sit next to the potential hire on an airplane for two hours, and ask myself how I would feel. Ideally, I would like to feel comfort and connection. If I do not feel that, it could suggest that the person might not be the best fit for the team I am building. It is a qualitative view of people, and it has served me well over the years.

Culture is critical. It is what makes or breaks a team, and determines how successful it will be. Keeping in mind the culture you intend to build in a team throughout the process of recruitment is critical.

While it is hard to comment on the broader culture, I can give my view on the Digital Channels and Data & Analytics (DCDA) side. Our culture is cooperative, with a strong emphasis on teamwork. Viewing it as an organization within an organization, it is particularly results-oriented and client-focused. This drives great collaboration in order to get things done as quickly as possible. In many ways, the agile nature and ways of working mirror that of a start-up.

Some of it comes from experience and being in this industry for a long time helps. However, there are a range of ways to know if you are looking at the right metrics.

For example, some questions we can ask ourselves are ‘is NPS right?’ or ‘should we be measuring client satisfaction (CSAT) or effort scores?’.

There is a time and place for each of those measurements, and understanding the objective of each metric is important. An NPS score measures a relationship with a brand and the likelihood to recommend. CSAT can also measure brand level satisfaction and is often used to measure a specific part of a journey within a brand experience. These methodologies help us focus our thinking on desired outcomes, and ensure we ask the right questions.

Also, in the field of client insights, what really matters are the drivers, or what the client values. If you think about a customer in a supermarket, they want a good price and good quality, and for the products they are looking for to be available. In a digital experience with a bank, these drivers will be different. Trust, for example, is a big thing because clients want to know that their transaction has been successful. They want timely transactions, in the exact manner they have planned for it to happen, with frequent updates on it.

Understanding the drivers that make your client happy is critical, and should be the basis for the metrics you measure.

At the time, Nielsen was the biggest research firm globally. An anecdote I love sharing is that Arthur Charles Nielsen, founder of the company, actually invented the concept of market share. Market share is a common term now, but this was not the case in the past.

As a big research company, there are many elements to the work that Nielsen does. This includes retail measurement, particularly in the context of supermarkets and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), as well as looking at sales, market share, and consumer preferences to name a few. They conduct customised research using quantitative and qualitative methods. They deeply investigate modelling and analytics – modelling price, analysing promotions, figuring out how best to spend marketing dollars to create a lasting impact.

I began my Nielsen journey in Australia, working in several cities before heading to Hong Kong, where I worked with big regional clients like Coca-Cola. The projects I was involved in spanned the entire APAC region, involving 14 different markets, with big multi-country projects. After that, I moved on to Shanghai.

One big takeaway that I find amazing is how similar human behaviour is. While there absolutely exist cultural nuances and distinct differences, there are still many similarities between, say a Chinese and New Zealand consumer in terms of consumption and thinking.

Another takeaway is realising my passion for research. Working hands-on with data, analysing it, and pulling out stories – this was stuff I loved. For almost two years, I was in a general management role – managing teams, operations, and budgets. Yet I realised I did not have much of a passion for this work. Hence, I naturally gravitated back towards the actual research when I went back to Coles in Australia, where I built up the insights team.

I think it is important to continually try out different things, and stretch your potential. You never know until you try! And at your career pivot points, it is crucial to self-assess and ask yourself if the thing you are doing is what you want, and if you have a passion for it.

While these companies may have great research teams, they may require additional human resources. If a company wishes to work on projects internationally, Nielsen could help coordinate all elements of the project from fieldwork to communication to a single consolidated report. If they would like to better understand consumer insights, Nielsen is also able to provide panels of consumers to survey and learn from.

Nielsen also boasts proprietary research techniques that large banks or FMCG firms may wish to buy and apply to their specific business models. An example would be Nielsen’s product, BASES. If the client would like to launch a new cereal line, Nielsen has a benchmark that tracks all other brands of cereal, and returns information that could predict the new product’s success, and suggest potential improvements. This range of historical data has been proven to be very useful.

Working with big multinational corporations across multiple markets taught me that oftentimes, the success or failure of a project is dependent on the human relationship you forge with the organisation’s key personnel. It can truly make or break the project. Forming a healthy relationship could mean gaining exposure and opportunities to work on big projects, and creating a huge impact.

When it comes to high-value clients, it is crucial to understand that MNCs do not all operate the same. For instance, when I was working with Coca-Cola they had a regional structure and the insights team would regularly work on multi-country projects. Colgate, on the other hand, tended to work in individual countries, doing great research in one country at a time. Figuring out how your clients work will ensure you align your working style with theirs.

In the early stages of the collaboration, it is ideal to spend some time building a personal connection with your client before you begin work. This helps to create trust, which is the foundation of the best business (and personal) relationships.

One personal example is the executive I worked with at a big multinational organisation, who was very big on monthly reports with specific details on market movements. Making sure I gave them what they needed in an accurate and timely manner established strong synergy between both parties.

Meeting objectives may vary when working with different stakeholders, but building trust is always key to developing great relationships with anyone. 

First of all, it teaches you humility. You have so much to learn about a new city – how things work, the culture, and possibly a new language. Having the opportunity to learn about new places I move to is truly eye-opening. I love spending time on public transport, getting to know societal norms and the way people behave.

Work cultures are very different as well. The transition from Australian to mainland Chinese work culture could not be more drastic. Adjusting your working style to adapt to your environment is a key to success. Your approaches from another country or culture may fail terribly in a different nation.

Much like other occupations, working in client insights means tight timelines and high-intensity work. What I find more important is setting ourselves up for success. Being able to build connections and lay down the right processes early on means we spend less time crunching data later on, and are able to quickly deliver results. Setting up and investing time early saves you a lot of hassle further down in the workflow.

Another important aspect is managing expectations. Sometimes, you have to be brutally honest with what can, and more importantly cannot, be delivered. For instance, if someone wishes to know the results of a survey prematurely, you must be firm and hold out, or else you run the risk of presenting incomplete findings. Being upfront with a realistic timeline and not rushing the process in a way that risks inaccurate data is important.

The world moves so fast now that you have to brush up on your skills continually. Having completed a short course with SMU on digital transformation recently, I think it is a great way to pivot towards the rapidly growing technology space and learn new things. AI and data analytics are great fields to lean into, and these short courses can give you a taste of what the domains have to offer.

While you may not be able to apply everything instantly after the course ends, you gain a broader awareness of the possibilities awaiting you. You learn about the broad outline of how to use a concept and what resources are available to you. With some practice, it can help crystallise that knowledge.

The MBA I had done in Australia was a value-adding experience for me. I picked up many new skills, consolidated existing knowledge, and explored new terrain (such as design thinking, which I had not done much of previously). It also gave me comfort in my field of expertise, which helped with my imposter syndrome – something everybody struggles with.

Overall, it was a great learning tool for me. It teaches you to think about strategy, team culture, and insights into how organisations function that may not be immediately apparent. It also helps you craft a story for higher management while learning about their perspectives and intentions. Beyond just changing your career, it is valuable in many ways.

What is common globally is that the B2B (business to business) sector remains underdeveloped in client experience, as compared to B2C (business to consumers). Banking is no different, but we are now seeing this change as focus shifts to how we can better understand client experience and decision making in the context of a B2B relationship.

Many organisations are undergoing their own transformations as well, and exploring how B2B platforms and research should be conducted.

What remains clear to me is that much of the important information in banking comes from the frontline team, such as relationship managers and customer service staff. Ultimately, the same critical question – what makes our clients happy – is answered by them.

In 2021, I was still working for Dairy Farm. Singaporean readers would have seen the transformation of the supermarket brand Giant, and a lot of insights my team produced went into this rebranding. Research completed all the way back in 2019 was fed into this process, where teams used it to understand the key improvements that needed to be made.

Another launch was CS Fresh, a whole new brand of Cold Storage. It was all about what Cold Storage customers want to see in a new brand and was centred around premium food options that cater to foodies.

These are great projects to be part of, as the opportunity to use insights to inform a supermarket brand relaunch and a whole new brand within a year does not come by very often. Furthermore, to know that our research helped drive these huge successes was very fulfilling.

My favourite part of the research process was asking customers what they would say to the managing director of Giant. It would always amuse me that as they were answering, the managing director was actually sitting behind the one-way mirror and listening in on the conversation.

I think I am lucky, because I figured out what I wanted to do early on in my life. I always had an inquisitive mind and found joy in being the person who asks ‘why’.

Continually asking ‘why’ and going down this line of questioning is really important. It helps you get to the root cause of your project and understand what truly matters. This affects the way you present information to senior stakeholders as you go beyond the superficial layer of understanding and enter a space of active contribution.

Instilling this mindset early on in your career, regardless of your occupation, would be deeply beneficial.