Keepers of the Numbers

This one is for all you marketing and financial analysts out there. The ones who actually crunch customer data and share the results with appropriate parties. The Keepers of the Numbers. If you’re not an analyst, read on anyway. This may help you understand why we analysts ask the questions we do.

If you’re a Keeper of the Numbers, I bet you’ve made this mistake before. Joe from business development stops you in the hall with, “Hey, what was our overall CTR last month? Just a rough estimate.”

You respond, “About 2 percent.”

A month later, you learn Joe used this 2 percent CTR to forecast revenue and set pricing for a large partnership deal that includes banner ads. Joe’s deal is losing money. He’s looking to you for answers. When you quoted that 2 percent, you didn’t specify it was a blended average that included banners on the Web site and ads in highly targeted email.

Clearly, Joe’s at fault. You gave him exactly what he asked for. He used the information incorrectly. Who bases a forecast on a single month of data without checking trends, anyway? Your job is safe — this time. But what happened was bad for the company. You could have perhaps prevented the mistake by asking a few questions. Part of our job is to deal with ad hoc data requests. Learn how to handle them appropriately.

I confess I’ve fallen victim to this mistake many, many times. I’ve thrown out a ballpark number without checking facts. The number assumes a life of its own. It’s used in ways I’d never anticipate, by people who have no idea what that number really means.

Let’s look at the flip side. The more questions you ask, the more difficult you’re perceived to be. You can’t get ahead that way, either. There are analysts out there who hoard information and use it as a strategic advantage. They distribute information exclusively on a need-to-know basis. That’s how the rest of us get a bad rap when we ask legitimate questions to determine how best to answer a request for data.

But ask you must. The higher the stakes, the more important accuracy becomes. What if it had been the CEO who stopped you in the hall and asked about the CTR? It takes guts, and delicacy, to probe the reason for the request. But a little discomfort up front is much better than the wrath of a CEO who has egg on his face as a result of quoting incorrect figures.

Your job security relies on your ability to deliver accurate numbers, appropriate for the circumstance in which they’ll be used. People often don’t want to explain themselves. They get defensive when you ask why they want the data. So it’s important to establish a reputation as someone who not only openly shares data but also helps the end user use the data effectively.

See the difference? You’re not hoarding data and questioning why people need it. You help them use data for their needs. From that perspective, you help colleagues avoid mistakes that would make them look bad. The hard part is getting them to see it that way.

What questions should you ask? We’ll use the “ballpark CTRs” example to illustrate.

Question One: Can They Clarify Their Request?

What time period, customer segment, market segment? Ask them to define any terminology, such as exactly what they mean by CTR. You might mention the overall CTR includes banners and email, and sometimes one number is more appropriate to use, depending on circumstance.

Question Two: What Are They Using the Data For?

Circumstance can make all the difference. If this person is preparing a revised revenue forecast for the remaining fiscal year, you’ll want to be sure to include trend information, even if she didn’t ask for it. You’ll probably want to include decimals rather than rounding the numbers.

If the person is considering a new lead-generation email campaign, you might help her identify specific past campaigns instead of overall results to more closely forecast results she might expect. You could mention you’re separating out email to existing customers, which have a higher CTR, from prospecting email. Explain the difference.

Question 3: Who Will They Share the Data With?

Admittedly, sometimes this is the cover-your-butt question. I like to know where my numbers will end up before I let go of them. There are legitimate reasons for this question besides self-preservation. Often, we’ll get requests for different versions of the same number. Joe wants overall email CTRs for last month. Sally wants prospecting email CTRs for last month. The CEO doesn’t know there’s a difference. They all quote the numbers as “email CTR.” If you know Joe and Sally will work together, proactively explain why they’re using different numbers despite the one name. Knowing the final audience helps you to add appropriate explanatory information to ensure the data are neither misinterpreted nor misused.

Don’t Expect Anyone to Understand

In my experience, people who come to me for numbers are in a hurry. They don’t want to be questioned, they want answers to their questions as quickly as possible.

Don’t waste your time explaining you’re concerned with accuracy and appropriate use. Rather, make it in their best interest to want to provide additional information so you can help them to avoid mistakes. This takes practice. In the end, you won’t be viewed as Keeper of the Numbers anymore. You’ll be a valuable resource who uses data to provide excellent insight and advice and who helps others do their jobs better.

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