Data Dreams and Fantasies

Whose data do you wish you could get your hands on?

Every day we read or hear about things businesses are doing that don’t seem to make sense. We second-guess, sometimes criticizing, sometimes assuming there’s more to the story than we know. But if you’re passionate about analyzing customer data (yes, some of us are), you probably just wish you could get your hands on the company’s data to evaluate things for yourself.

Remember New Coke? While the rest of the world was switching to Pepsi, the analysts of the world were wishing they could see the data and the research that led to that ill-fated decision.

Why? It’s not just our love of data, although there is the thrill of tapping into a new database to see what secrets it will reveal. But we analysts know from painful past experience that many companies make decisions without doing their homework. And even more fail to evaluate the results of their decisions. Often price changes dictated from the top are never evaluated for effectiveness. Policy changes may impact customer satisfaction in ways that are never understood because the research budget was cut. And the worst — CEOs who say, “Well, our customers are wrong!”

So, we are suspicious anytime we read about a head-scratching decision. We wonder if facts we aren’t privy to would make it all make sense. But we also can’t help wondering if we’d have made a different decision if we could’ve just cracked open the company’s customer database.

Who hasn’t wished they could go over the federal budget with a magnifying glass? Remember the scene in the movie “Dave” where the civilian CPA goes over the budget and finds ways to cut millions of wasted dollars, thereby saving children’s homeless shelters? Just this week the Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured an article detailing how the governor used a large amount of money from a taxpayer-funded emergency fund to begin an etiquette class in area high schools. What analyst doesn’t dream of saving billions for the American taxpayers just by applying logic to the data?

Or how about the FBI’s files? Although it’s not technically considered “customer data,” wouldn’t you love to have a day to explore that database?

Whose data would you like to see, and why?

My cousin, a CPA who recently moved to San Francisco, is adjusting to life without a car. He’d like access to the financial data for the public transportation system. Why? He just wants to know how much of the cost of transporting him around town is actually covered by his $1 fare. I’m sure his inner accountant secretly dreams of finding a way to help the department break even.

Two years later I still wish I could see Blockbuster’s customer data to help me understand the financial impact of changing the video return time from midnight to noon. No, I’m not kidding. I really hate having to drop my movies on the way to work, when I’m usually hurrying, instead of on the way home, when I have more time. I stopped renting movies during the week because of it; I probably now spend half as much on movies as I did before the change. And yet, the policy still stands, and I’m left to guess I must be in the minority. Or maybe the revenue increase from turning the movies around faster outweighs the decrease in average rentals per user? But the analyst in me thinks, “What if Blockbuster never followed up on the change to evaluate the effectiveness?” If only it’d let me have a shot at the data….

My husband, on the other hand, wants to know how Delta expects to charge $100 to fly standby without alienating its frequent fliers. I pointed out to him that since he buys nonrefundable discount tickets, he’s probably not one of its most valuable customers. But he quickly came back with the fact that he’s a Gold Medallion flier and that American Airlines would probably be glad to have his business. So, the analyst in me is itching to see the data. Is my husband in the minority? Are the financials so compelling that it’s worth infuriating frequent fliers? Do standby fliers cause more trouble than they’re worth, hence the hefty fee? Or did somebody make a decision without considering the ramifications?

I know the airlines are struggling. I’ll give Delta the benefit of the doubt, and I’m certainly not trying to pick on it. I just wish I could crunch its data for a day. I think it would be fascinating. A girl can dream, can’t she?

In case there’s any misunderstanding, my intention is not to criticize the companies I mention here. We all see things that don’t make sense to us on a personal level. The analysts among us simply wonder if a well-researched decision was made or if somebody just thought they had a good idea, and the follow-up analysis fell through the cracks. Part of the fun of analyzing customer data is looking for clues, finding some hidden opportunities, or preventing a catastrophic decision using our powers of data interpretation.

Whose data do you wish you could “crunch for a day”? Could you have saved Kozmo.com or WebVan with your strategic analysis of customer and competitive data, if only you’d been given the chance? Would you have presented a case against changing the Coke formula all those years ago? Or maybe you’d have noticed that supplying ice to senators who are not even in the office that day was costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

Pretend you can have unlimited access to one company’s data for 24 hours. Click the feedback link and tell us whose data you’d most like to crunch, and why.

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