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THE BLOG 04/13/2016 02:41 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2017

Big Data or Smart Customer Insight?

By Chip R. Bell

2016-04-11-1460372174-4572642-58980194_thumbnail.jpgBig Daddy Pollitt was the centerpiece of the Pulitzer Prize winning Tennessee Williams play, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Big Daddy was the richest cotton tycoon in the Mississippi Delta. Smart and powerful, he was also the patriarch over a dysfunctional family who schemed to inherit his fortune. The movie version (with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor) had Burl Ives (the voice of the hit song "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer") in the role of Big Daddy.

The back story of the 1955 play, set at the Pollitt plantation, was the celebration of Big Daddy's 65th birthday and his return from the clinic where was told he was in perfect health. His doctor privately told the family the truth--Big Daddy was dying of cancer. But no one wanted to spoil his birthday, especially since the pursuit of truth would unveil many family secrets all had harbored for years. The entire birthday evening--right up until the climax of the play--was a charade choreographed just to "please" Big Daddy.

There are similarities between Big Daddy and Big Data. Organizations flex their research prowess and boost about their complex, sophisticated tools for information mining and technology-generated intelligence gathering. Savvy corporate scientists gather reams of customer data that is scrutinized, sanitized, homogenized and summarized into a PowerPoint presentation to please senior leaders helping them feel satisfied their company "gets" their customers.

The assurance typically so effectively convinces leaders all is well that most conclude they do not need to personally conduct customer conversations. If there are aberrations or emerging trends or intuitive insights obtainable only from direct conversations, they are told, "our call center managers will let us know." This charade of imperfect and incomplete understanding can influence leaders into believing what they are told is the whole story, completely missing the truth of the customer's drama.

There are many reasons for our love affair with Big Data. It is objective and provable, not subjective and emotional like real customer relationships. It is tidy and scientific, not messy and unpredictable like actual customer interactions. It has been gained using a calculated approach as dispassionate and objective as the pronoun produced by the all-familiar information technology acronym. Were this warfare it would be drone-like and not warrior-like in its planning and execution.

Don't get me wrong. Big data has its place. Big Daddy's smartness created his wealth that gave him community prominence and a large plantation for a dwelling. And, what could be more efficient and precise than a drone strike that extracts not a signal drop of friendly blood. But, the perilous side of Big Data is its capacity to seduce its user into believing it is the truth...and, all one needs to know. Smart organizations, while recognizing the value of big data, know the data that matters most is often that gained up close and person.

What does inquiry with the other end of a relationship provide that information about a consumer does not? First and foremost is the capacity to ask a follow-up question that yields understanding, not just information. Second, being able to gauge in real-time the array of a rich meaning behind the words interprets perception and enriches insight. Customers feel more than heard; they feel valued.

In their 1941 book Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck and Edward Ricketts describe a fishing expedition off the coast of Los Cabos in this way:

"The Mexican sierra has 17 plus 15 plus nine spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating in the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being--an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman.

The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from the formalin solution, count the spines and write the truth. There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed--probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself."

The nature of customer service is a fundamentally a relationship based on an implied covenant to exchange value for value. Value on the customer's side of the exchange is more than the excellence of the product or outcome; it includes the experience surrounding that product or outcome. Feelings characterize the experience more than facts; emotion more than logic. Steinbeck's poignant line reminds us that no matter how comprehensive and accurate our big data may be in the truth about the sierra; it will never completely assess or describes the magic and mystery of a relationship.

GE CEO Jeff Immult spends a day a week talking with customers. He also holds town hall meetings twice a month ("Dreaming Sessions") with several hundred key customers. Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett includes customers in the company's shareholder's meeting. Meg Whitman, in her first year as HP CEO, had over 500 customer meetings. Bill Marriott, chairman of Marriott, even at 84, visits almost 200 hotels a year. And, if you have been in a hotel when he is present you know it is the guests that get his undivided attention.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) customers are people. As such they perceive service, as Tom Peters wrote, "In their own unique, idiosyncratic, emotional, end-of-the-day and total human terms." What customers report to a dispassionate data gatherer might be as close to the truth as what they tell a telemarketer at suppertime. Like battlefield execution, without the up close and personal role of frontline warriors, mechanized drones and big data will never reveal the whole truth. It takes "boots on the ground."

Follow Chip R. Bell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChipRbell Chip R. Bell National bestselling author and speaker

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