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Beware of false data

Lou Gerstner was Chairman and CEO of IBM from April 1993 until the end of 2002. He is largely credited for turning around IBM’s fortunes. How? By truly bringing the outside in. There is a video available online showing Gerstner talking about what he found when he first arrived at IBM. He asked to see customer research and was amazed to find that it showed customers loved IBM. How was this possible, he asked, when the company’s fortunes were nose-diving and customers were deserting in droves? A month later he asked again to see the data, to find it had now improved even as the company’s fortunes had worsened! He asked the key question: how was the data gathered? He was told that customer account handlers selected who was to be approached, and if they were too difficult to reach, they filled the questionnaires in themselves, on the basis they really knew what the customer thought. This, said Gerstner, was both funny and tragic.

Sadly, however, this technique is not as rare as you might imagine. I have seen it happening in several organizations where I have worked, including the UK Atomic Energy Authority. At a time when the Authority was preparing itself for flotation on the stock market as a commercial science and engineering consultancy, we were doing a huge amount of work to improve perceptions of the organization. I did a significant amount of research, polling lots of different stakeholders about their attitudes to AEA. The customers we polled gave us some worrying feedback. While they loved the science and technology we were producing, they felt we had a huge amount to learn about being customer-centric and providing a good service.

When I went back into the organization to talk to the scientists and engineers about what I’d heard my report was flatly rejected. They told me they knew their customers and that their customers were very happy. They produced evidence of their own surveys to demonstrate the truth of what they were saying and all of my ideas for change were resisted. Crushed, I went back to the drawing board. This time, I conducted a much wider survey of customers, and asked the researchers to get customers to give specific examples – in their own words – of how they were being disappointed. At the same time I asked for copies of the ‘research’ that our own consultants had conducted. Without saying that their research was flawed, I simply compared and contrasted the findings and encouraged debate and discussion to open minds to new ideas. It was only when our staff saw the quotes from customers who were prepared to be named that they started to be shocked enough to move from complacency to action.

Figure 6.1: Bringing the outside in

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