Winning numbers, stories and business decisions

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How can businesses navigate today’s information-filled world?

Data seems to be everywhere. Anyone listening to the local morning news can be overwhelmed by a flurry of numbers: fluctuations in exchange rates, commodity prices, traffic updates, election polls, cases of Covid-19 and many more.

Numbers have become a way of understanding the world and many companies know it. Handwritten ledgers are evolving into digital spreadsheets and databases. Recording data in this way has unlocked more analytical capabilities for many companies. As an analyst myself, I love to dive into data. When I want to discover the challenges and opportunities for a company, my first instinct is to carry out an in-depth study of the statistics available around it.

Quantitative data can give you an objective view of a situation. Figures such as sales, volumes and costs provide an indisputable view of the health of your business. The time and effort spent developing systems and spreadsheets is well worth it when you have clear visibility into your key metrics. These fuel intelligent and informed business decisions.

Numbers alone are not enough. However, many businesses shouldn’t rely on numbers alone. They will only show you part of the image.

A team I had worked with was developing an app to help small businesses manage their finances. We noticed that many customers weren’t responding to any of the many email offers we sent them to try it out. With these figures alone, would it be the right choice to abandon this project?

Always optimistic about our vision, we spent weeks calling customers asking what they wanted and what they lacked in a current offering. We found that while our app was useful, it didn’t take into account the small, specific ones. We started to see uptake of this new product increase after we pivoted our approach.

If we hadn’t spoken to these customers, we would never have discovered the little details that we needed to build into the functionality of our product.

Your numbers can be helpful in telling you what’s going on, but they won’t always tell you why. It can be hasty to base game-changing information on statistics alone.

Make the stories and the numbers work together. The best types of information are discovered when we are able to successfully relate what people say to larger trends. Stories alone are not enough either. If a customer says they find your product too expensive, how do we know if it’s something a lot of people are feeling? Is this a sufficient signal to tell you to make your products cheaper?

Powerful decision making happens when we collect quality information and use it in the right way. Numbers and stories should be interpreted based on their strengths. Numbers can tell you enough about trends and patterns to give you confidence in the scale of an observation. Stories give you color around what the numbers are telling you, highlighting what is driving these trends.

At its most ideal state, I believe it is a back-and-forth process. Data can tell us where to look and who to ask. See a single outlier that is not behaving as expected? Tap further and identify that person’s story. They might be able to broaden your thinking about the needs of your customers. Stories can also reveal blind spots in our data. Did customers mention that they care about a certain feature that you weren’t collecting metrics for before? Integrate it into your system and unlock a crucial new vision for your business success.

A natural sense of curiosity underlies a powerful engine of insight. Winning companies are not afraid to constantly innovate. It means questioning what you know, collecting the necessary data, and having the genuine enthusiasm to learn something new. The world is constantly changing – we stay in touch not only by following the trends, but by understanding the stories that are the driving forces behind them.

Vince Kho is a data strategist at First Circle, where people help people make smarter decisions about data. He is passionate about improving lives through technology, data and education. You can contact him on [email protected]


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