We love numbers. We’re quite obsessed with them. Everything we do in business has to be measured and tracked in a nice, neat metric, often color-coded with a red-yellow-green indicator. We also pick numbers that are easy to capture, typically pulled from a report already being generated for another purpose. And oftentimes, performance bonuses raises, and other incentives are tied to these dashboard numbers. So needless to say, we live and breathe by them.
However, this information never tells the whole picture, and frequently fails to provide the organization insight into threats and disruptions from left field. Smaller, more abstract – often called “thick data” – is just as critical to capture and track. It simply doesn’t come in as tidy of a format as our “big data” numbers. This ambiguity requires interpretation, which can be seen as difficult and not as definitive as a clear-cut number. The problem is this bias towards quantitative data blinds organizations to critical nuances that aren’t found in oversimplified, aggregate numbers. While it’s comforting to see that our average Net Promoter Score is a seven and has remained there for three consecutive quarters, this information provides nothing as to why or how it’s there, much less what’s lurking in the shadows to drop it.
Take the analogy of personal health. You may go and get an annual physical with your primary care physician. They take all the vital statistics – blood pressure, pulse, oxygen saturation, cholesterol levels, weight, height, etc. All the numbers look good, and they haven’t changed significantly over the last few years. Everything’s great. However, that ‘numerical snapshot’, while tracked over time, doesn’t address more subtle and harder-to-measure elements, such as stress levels, mental health, or something as obvious as an ankle fracture.
While you may say, “Well, obviously if someone had a fractured ankle, they would bring up that issue to the physician.” Or “If they had mental health concerns, they would voice them to their doctor.” However, in organizations, these types of things often aren’t brought to the forefront, as they aren’t part of the quantitative dashboard.
Consider a situation where customers continually voice their frustrations about the bill pay feature on your company website. Front-line employees hear the feedback on a daily basis, and possibly put in a request to IT to address the situation. Yet, the skin-in-the-game for IT is their website uptime – measured and tracked on the dashboard. Even though the bill pay feature is an issue, it’s not a priority, because the “numerical metrics” drive organizational priorities, and in turn, behavior.
It’s hard to measure customer frustration with the bill pay feature. You might collect anecdotal evidence. You might feel it’s simply isolated to a handful of less technology-savvy customers. You may believe it’s just as good as your competitor’s offering, so there’s little need to change it. And there’s no way to tie it’s impact to the financial metrics.
So it languishes amongst a long list of other “to-do” items because there’s no effective way to measure its value. And this is the problem. By solely focusing on aggregate numbers, you lose sight of the myriad of small things that add up to true strategic differentiators. Subtle things, including respect and trust, communicating in a way that connects with a customer’s emotional needs and empowering customers to conduct business when and how they want – these things can’t be measured easily, but we all know they have a huge impact.
We need to step away from our addiction to numbers and take time to look at the smaller, abstruse, hard-to-measure influences on business success. Consider this – you know being polite and saying ‘thank you’ to customers is a no-brainer – but how do you measure the value of that? You don’t. But just because you can’t measure it, doesn’t mean you don’t do it.