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Applying Moneyball Metrics to Customer Service

In Moneyball, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill use statistical analysis to cobble together a team of misfits and turn the cash-strapped Oakland A’s into World Series contenders. (FYI—No spoilers anywhere.) That’s where the sports metrics craze started, a decade ago in Major League Baseball.

Now it’s everywhere in American sports—the MLB, NBA, NFL, NCAA. According to the Atlantic, “baseball statheads even have a specific term for it: sabermetrics, which officially means ‘the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records’ but sounds like a technique Luke Skywalker used in Return of the Jedi.”

However, there’s still a question of whether stats can wholly capture the intangibles humans bring to the table. And that question applies very much to metrics in customer service.

If You Can’t Measure It, It Doesn’t Matter

Now known as the McNamara Fallacy, this saying is part of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s assessment of U.S. defeat in Vietnam.

Talking about quantifying success in the war, he basically said we measured what we could measure and ignored the rest, assuming it wasn’t important. He supposedly called the approach blind and suicidal.

Susan Fowler of the Ken Blanchard Companies has a take on that quote: “As in life, the most rewarding aspects of work are things that are most difficult to measure.”

Fowler recalls a cooking course in Tuscany where the chef refused to give exact measurements for recipes, saying they depended on the quality of ingredients, ambient air temperature, humidity, et cetera. She said the measureless approach had a profound effect on her, changing not only her cooking but her “perspective on day-to-day living.”

Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan has a similar take:

“I watch baseball every day,” he told Deadspin recently. “I have a better understanding about why things happen than the computer, because the computer only tells you what you put in it.”

If you think of it that way, we’re just talking about two computers (our brain and an actual computer), but one computer has a lot more information to go on than the other.

Our brains, which are amazing parallel processors, absorb a huge amount of data without us being consciously aware of it all. Given that, it’s impossible to ask a computer to search for and analyze data that we don’t even consciously know exists.

Even the amount of data we can collect and analyze with computers is overwhelming.

“You have to have a particular degree of creativity just to know what is possible,” NBA analyst Rajiv Maheswaran told the Los Angeles Times last month. “It’s 1,000 times more information than anyone had before.”

(For example, last year the Golden State Warriors used stats on “defensive rotations, lineups and fatigue metrics and made tweaks accordingly” to improve their shoddy defense against 3-pointers.)

So What About Customer Service?

Metrics aren’t going away. The faster computer processing speed gets, the more metrics we can measure. (According to Moore’s law, memory and processing speed improve at exponential rates as the number of transistors we can jam onto circuits doubles every two years.)

In an interview with Forbes in 2010, HP’s customer success VP Jim Haar (then at another company) said he paid more attention to metrics on employees than on operational concerns.

“That’s all important [infrastructure, downtime, et cetera]. It’s all very operational,” he said. “But what’s more important to me right now is, how is my organization doing on hiring and filling open reqs, job reqs. We need critical people in some critical roles.”

Customer service guru Flavio Martins says metrics can provide “an accurate picture of what happened” during interactions with customers. They can show changes over time.

“Your previous metrics are the starting point,” Martins writes on WintheCustomer. “Your future metrics will be the indicator of whether your customer service plans are working.”

But it’s critical to remember that metrics are only numbers, not people.

“Metrics represent people, they are REAL customers you’re working with,” he writes. “What is an extra 2%? What does X number more REALLY mean?”

And according to Fowler, we can’t ignore those intangibles we may not be able to measure.

“…a true growth step for leaders is to become more mindful of promoting those things that cannot be measured,” she writes. “And more comfortable with the choices they bring. That includes emotions.”

So what does this mean for metrics in customer service?

It means that while we can and should use metrics, we have to choose which ones we use creatively and thoughtfully, and we need to understand that we can’t measure everything. At least not with computers.

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