The Numbers Are Wrong! Stop Freaking Out and Focus your energies here instead..

Posted on | January 20, 2014 | 10 Comments

The reports were wrong, but the people who mattered didn’t know that. The people who matter? My customers. These executives represent some of the world’s largest companies and have entrusted my team to deliver an important service to thousands of their employees worldwide.

Every month my company proudly sends our customers a “usage dashboard” that summarizes the service’s performance within their organization. But this month, there was a glitch in our database and the reports mistakenly read ZERO. Zero as in their investment over the last month delivered absolutely no return whatsoever. Zero is a disaster. Zero means my customers (and I!) are going to be on the hot seat with their bosses.

“Uh oh,” I thought. “My phone is gonna blow up today with some angry customers.”
Our tech team sprang into action to fix the reports while I waited… and waited… until 24 hours later when still not a single client contacted me.

If I know anything about my clients, it’s that they’re a savvy group. They’re diligent and committed to success.
So why no response to a report that should have set off flashing alarms?
A little research taught me a lesson that’s poignant for us all..

Looking back through several years of correspondence, I saw a startling pattern:
Sharing numbers with our clients generates far fewer responses and sparks far fewer conversations than sharing stories with our clients.

Over the years, I’m guilty of bombarding my customers with tons of reports. Most of them are pure numbers: how many people are using the service, number of courses completed, attendance rates, etc.

On other occasions (though admittedly not as often as I should), I’ve shared stories. Stories about how their employees are using our products on the job, about how their employees accomplished something noteworthy as a result of our service, about best practices we’ve learned from other clients.

The numbers give the customer an idea of how their investment is doing, but the stories bring the program to life and give the customer an opportunity to learn something new. And looking back on it, doing the research to uncover those stories and sharing them with my customers has been among the most gratifying parts of my job.

A perfect illustration of an industry that, in my opinion, is too extreme with its numbers: banks. If your bank, mortgage company, or stock broker is like mine, every month you get a deluge of numbers. Page after page of miniscule details that illustrate your account’s performance.
Same with annual reports. Open up one of those and it’s jammed with charts, all of which seem desperate to portray an upward trajectory.

Now, perhaps you’re more attentive than I and you read every page of those reports. I give them a three second glance and toss right in the garbage what must have cost a lot of money to produce. The reality is that work, family, and health deserve my attention more than poring over a complicated report created by a financial wiz.

If you really want to capture my attention and build a brand, Mr. bank president or Annual Report author, toss the other 27 pages of charts and numbers (or at least add a few pages!) and include a story or a bit of advice. Tell me how your most accomplished executive uniquely manages her time. Three tips on how I can maximize performance. An inspiring story about how one of your clients overcame a major obstacle and what the takeaway is for the rest of us.

Think about your own business. Are you trying to impress your clients with numbers? Or are you making the extra time to add some color in the form of a story about the people you help?

In today’s world of big data, numbers are sooooo easy to report on. We can geek out for ages on numbers but honestly, how many numbers do you really need to get your point across? And how proud will your clients feel about their partnership with you if all they have to share and appreciate is a bunch of figures jammed into a spreadsheet?

Fortunately, my clients are patient and they quickly received revised reports that show their investments are delivering results well beyond zero. But a little lesson of what happened – or rather what didn’t – when our monthly data went haywire reminds me that the communications which prompt the most response tell a human story, not a numeric one.



10 Responses to “The Numbers Are Wrong! Stop Freaking Out and Focus your energies here instead..”

  1. Jim Aden
    January 21st, 2014 @ 8:43 am

    How true Ben! Data can tell us ‘how much, how many, how often, etc.,’ but only stories can tell us ‘how well.’ I remember well how a few quotes from participants could bring life to a data-filled report. Thanks.

  2. ryan williams
    January 21st, 2014 @ 9:26 am

    so true my friend! Technology will almost never replace the effectiveness of human interaction!

  3. Bob Saylor
    January 21st, 2014 @ 9:43 am

    Very, very true. Good advice for us “analytics” Thanks for shareing

  4. Dennis Sheehan
    January 21st, 2014 @ 12:29 pm


    Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google: “I keep saying that the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians.”

    Google is all-knowing. I accept everything they tell me. So I am sticking with the statistics angle. :-)


  5. patricia mchale
    January 22nd, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    Always prefer to talk with real people, rather than computer generated reports. They
    are so impersonal. Nothing like real people who care more about the person than the numbers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Ben Lawrence
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 10:15 pm

    Jim, I like your comment about “bringing to life a data-filled report”. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Ben Lawrence
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 10:18 pm

    Ryan, Just today a new hire asked me, “What percentage of your best meetings are held virtually vs. in person?” Despite the wonders of Skype, face to face still wins.
    As you know well, the airline industry will not be going out of business any time soon!

  8. Ben Lawrence
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 10:19 pm

    Glad you enjoyed it, Bob. Thanks for the comment!

  9. Ben Lawrence
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 10:21 pm

    Fair point, Dennis. No question data analysis is a HOT industry and those who master it have a bright future. Fortunately today’s world has opportunities for both the analyst AND the story teller.

  10. Ben Lawrence
    January 23rd, 2014 @ 10:22 pm

    Written by a woman who built a career building relationships. Thanks for commenting, Pat, and for teaching me years ago how to focus on the right audience.

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