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Data ≠ Insight, Questions ≠ Answers

Data is great, but it is no substitute for seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.

That’s my takeaway from a great piece in today’s Harvard Business Review – timely indeed as it comes on the heels of Friday’s post re the decline in service at many workers’ comp “service” companies.

The piece discussed a financial services firm looking to better understand what their customers actually wanted; the firm “conducted a series of client interviews structured in a way that allowed the customer to do the talking and the company to do the listening.”

Here’s a smack-to-the-head finding:

the questions they’d been asking [in previous surveys] were built on managers’ perceptions of what clients needed to answer. They weren’t constructed on what clients wanted to express. This resulted in data that didn’t reflect clients’ real requirements. The list of priorities obtained via client interviews compared to management’s assumed client priorities coincided a mere 50 percent of the time. [emphasis added]

A smart tech exec said we:

“…focus on what customers want to accomplish, not necessarily how they want to accomplish it.” [emphasis added]

That’s point one.

Which leads directly to Point Two – You cannot just do what the client says they want you to do.

The problem with most account managers, and managers of account managers, and customer service goals, and the execs that are responsible for customer happiness/retention/success is they focus on what the customer says – not what they mean.

You know way more than your customer does about your business, your abilities, the supply chain, workflows and processes, which regulations apply and which don’t. You probably know a lot more than your customers’ execs do about:

  • how their IT systems work and don’t,
  • workarounds and the impacts thereof,
  • how and why front-line workers are negatively impacted by archaic processes and management approaches,
  • how your work product is accessed and integrated into outputs, and
  • how you could simplify processes and speed things up and reduce errors.

Your job is to do that – not to do what the customer says, but to deliver what they really need – not what they say they need.

[As one who has conducted dozens of surveys over the last two decades, this will force me to re-think how we do this…]

What does this mean for you?

Asking the right questions is about identifying the problems your customers want to solve.

You – not your customer – are responsible for figuring out how to solve those problems.


5 thoughts on “Data ≠ Insight, Questions ≠ Answers”

  1. Not related to today’s post, but…
    I recently read an article in Politico titled “Trapped in Germany’s COVID nightmare”, with the subtitle “The purported home of efficiency is lagging behind on vaccination”. The article compared and contrasted Germany’s response to the pandemic to America’s. To me, having been raised in a multicultural home (I am a first-generation American, born in the US to German/Austrian immigrants), the article was a fascinating insight into cultural differences and how they play out in national decisions. My takeaway is this:
    Americans will sacrifice public health on the altar of individual liberty.
    Germans will sacrifice public health on the altar of personal privacy.
    Choices have consequences….

  2. When I worked in consulting, we had an often used saying that customers know what they want, but not what they need, so our line of questions was always around identifying what business problem they are trying to solve. Then we were forced to identify the root cause(s) and only then could we craft a solution. A fair amount of the time, they knew what they needed but this process allowed us to also identify the metrics of success.

  3. Best sales advice I ever received: Forget about the pitch; ask questions then shut-up and listen. Actually applies in all aspects of our lives.

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Joe Paduda is the principal of Health Strategy Associates



A national consulting firm specializing in managed care for workers’ compensation, group health and auto, and health care cost containment. We serve insurers, employers and health care providers.



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