Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 35 seconds


Big data, metrics, dashboards, analytics, clickstream data…. It’s the era of quantitative, fact-based management. Does that mean only numbers matter, or is there still a place for qualitative input into the process?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrases “that’s just anecdotal”, “anecdotally, here’s what happened” and others said with a pejorative tone, the implication being they’re not believable because they don’t have numbers behind them. In some situations you want solid facts, that’s for sure. You want metrics for your ERP processing status, you don’t want to wait for user calls to your help desk if something’s wrong. However, anecdotal evidence can sometimes be very powerful, too.

As a manager, I loved to hear directly from customers, branch personnel, and field-based sellers about our service. The preferred context would be in a general conversation, but complaints from other sources were a surprisingly fertile source of “non-data-driven, anecdotal, qualitative” information that was actionable. I may not have learned from an exchange with one of our sales reps, for example, that 97.6% of our customers rated us at ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’, but I did hear that I had an employee who didn’t communicate properly with customers and was therefore in need of further training. It’s great to see the macro numbers and appreciate the overall performance level of the group, but I invariably gained valuable insight whenever I “heard something from someone” as well.

There are many ways to collect hard data from customers. So, how do you mine the nuggets of anecdotal or ‘soft’ information? Personally, I found networking to be most successful. I had the benefit of spending the first half of my career in the field, so I had a lot of contacts among our branch and sales personnel. Additionally, our work with customer-facing projects connected us with different layers of the sales and marketing organization. We had to work a little harder with other groups, such as supply chain, to ensure we’d communicate. The keys with all these business partners seemed to be accessibility, acceptance of the information, and ownership of the issue, whether positive or negative.

Another source for anecdotal information is your own team. Positive news is always welcome, so there won’t be a filter between you and an analyst passing on the news from a customer that our project was the smoothest they ever completed. Making sure complaints make it to management level is a special challenge, though. For negative information, employees need to know that you won’t overreact and that your interest is in process improvement and employee development.

Executives like to travel to meet customers precisely because they crave anecdotal information. They want to hear how the company is doing on a human level. Numbers mean a lot, but what really gets people’s attention, for good or bad, are the ‘stories’ your partners tell about you.

Next time you hear the term ‘anecdotal information’, don’t think negatively. Think about how you can put that information to good use.

Last modified on Monday, 30 April 2012
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