23 Jul

Anecdotes are not data. Or are they?

I’m a sucker for small, offbeat museums.  I’ve been to an Accordion Museum, a Corn Art Museum, and even a Penis Museum (yes, you read that right).  It’s in Iceland, and it is awesome.


Here is a picture of me getting a reading with a phrenology machine at the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis.  Phrenology, in case you don’t follow 19th century science and medicine, was a highly developed “science” that made predictions and assertions about your intellect and behavior, based on the bumps on your head.  This was considered a very legitimate and mainstream practice back in the day.    Nowadays, it has been banished to odd little museums in the Midwest where we smugly cluck to ourselves about how naïve people were a few generations ago.

Now here is the thing about Phrenology machines.  They will give you a very accurate reading about the bumps on your head.  If it’s data you are looking for, the phrenology machine is a pretty good instrument to turn to.  The problem arises when you try to draw conclusions from that data.  Turns out that determining personality traits from the bumps on your head is about as reliable as basing it on where the planets were at the time of your birth (but perhaps that’s a conversation for another time).

As we now know, in our modern wisdom, asking someone a few questions will give you a much better indication of their personality traits than feeling up their scalp.

However, when it comes to customer research, many organizations are reluctant to simply talk to their customers.  “That’s just anecdotes” they say.  “Anecdotes are not data.  We need data”.

But here is an underappreciated fact about data:  If it’s true, it’s data.

When people say “Anecdotes are not data”, what they really mean is “be wary about the conclusions you draw from anecdotes”.  This is a valid caveat, especially in fields like medicine where you are trying to find small statistical effects.  If your cousin says “My cold went away after I chewed on these pine cones”, you will need more information than that before the FDA will allow you to prescribe pine cones to cure colds.

However, anecdotes can be extremely useful, especially when you are starting out from a place of relative ignorance.   Don’t get me wrong.  I love me some data, and I use it often in my work with clients.  However, anecdotes are an underutilized technique for “getting the lay of the land”.

Let’s say you were living in bunker for a few years and you hadn’t seen the outside for quite some time.   You could send someone outside to check things out.  If they come back and say “it’s cold outside and there is white stuff on the ground” they are giving you an anecdote.  But with that story, you can start to develop a hypothesis that it is currently winter. 

Now that hypothesis could be wrong.  Maybe it’s really June and there was a freak snowstorm (I live in Canada, this happens sometimes).  Maybe there was a nuclear holocaust and the planet is plunged into permanent winter.  Nonetheless, it’s a pretty reasonable hypothesis that it is winter, which you can then start to build on by collecting more data.

Many organizations are living in a bunker when it comes to contact with the their customers.  They have only the vaguest idea of who they are, how happy they are, and what they want.   If this describes your relationship with your customers, I suggest that you consider stepping outside of your bunker and talking to a few of them. 

08 Jul

How to date your customers


I’ll admit that it’s been a long time since I’ve been on a date. Having been married for 13 years, I will forgive you for being a little skeptical when I dish out dating advice.

Although my memory on this topic is a little hazy, I do remember this much:  The kinds of conversations you have with people depends on what stage of the relationship you are at.  You will ask different types of questions when you are just starting to get to know them, then if you are already in a relationship.

There are distinct phases in relationships, each coming with different sets of questions.

Initial checking out phase:  You are trying to figure out whether or not there is some basic compatibility there.  Do you like this person?  Do they like you?

Typical questions:  “Tell me about yourself.”  “What are your interests?”

Getting to know you phase:  You want to learn more details about this person because you are genuinely interested.

Typical questions: “What are your parents like?”

Negotiating the specifics of dating:  At this stage, you are routinely checking in about specific plans, and maybe increasing the commitment level.

Typical questions:  “Do you feel like Thai food tonight?”  “Can I leave my toothbrush at your place?”

Getting feedback:  Periodically, you want to check in with your partner about how things are going.

Typical questions: “Did you like that birthday party I threw you?” “Was that good for you?”

Just like romantic relationships, customer relationships have distinct phases that each come with their own set of queries.

I often get asked, “what are the specific questions we should be asking customers?”

And I always counter with a question of my own (I’m annoying that way).  “What stage of the relationship are you in?”

The fact is, there are times when you should be doing a quick check-in, “Was that good for you?”, and there are times where you should be just getting to know them, “Tell me about yourself.”

A common mistake is to ask too many different kinds of questions at once, at the wrong time, and in the wrong way.  It would be like asking “What are your interests?” quickly followed  by “Can I leave my toothbrush at your house?”  Awkward.

No wonder nobody filled out your survey.  No one wants to date that guy.

For instance, when you are exploring innovation ideas in a particular market, you need to be asking questions like “Tell me about yourself.” “What are your challenges?” “What keeps you up at night?”.  This should never be done as a survey.  A survey is simply not a good tool for this type of question.  You need to have an actual conversation.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, when a customer has completed a transaction, that’s a great time to ask them “Was that good for you?”.  Skype does this very effectively with their call quality survey after a call.  It takes a few seconds to answer and you can continue with your day.  This would be a terrible time for Skype to ask you about your deep challenges with communication in general.


If you already have a relationship with a customer, then it is a good idea to periodically check in with them to see what other needs they might have.  You should ask things like “How satisfied are you with us?  Would you recommend us?” “Is there anything we can improve?”  “What kinds of things would you like to see from us in future?”  These kinds of questions can be done effectively through a survey.

The next time you are thinking about what to ask your customers, pause for a moment and ask yourself these questions.

  • What is the status of your relationship with them?
  • What are you trying to find out from them?
  • How can you deepen that relationship?

Once you know the answers to those key inward-looking questions, you will know what questions to ask your customers.