I had the good fortune to study for three years under Peter Drucker, one of the most famous consultants and business authors in history. Each week he would guide us through detailed business case studies like a detective hunting for clues to a mystery. In particular, there was one phrase from Dr. Drucker that resonated with me then, and on almost every marketing project I work on today:
“When the dog doesn’t bark, it’s time to dig deeper.”
This might seem like cryptic and strange advice, but it is so very wise and relevant in this age of Big Data and analytics. Let me explain, through an example.
I recently worked on a brand marketing project for a global B2B company. This corporation had done an excellent job with their research and literally had POUNDS of data assessing their market from every conceivable angle. In fact, I bet they spent a million dollars on research.
They also had a smart marketing team who crafted a great strategy from the data. They seemed to have a solid game plan yet sales were going DOWN month after month! They brought me in to try to untangle the problem.
Like any good strategist, I started with the data, studying the research for three days straight. There seemed to be an inconsistency in the research that I simply didn’t understand. In other words, I was expecting the dog to bark … and it wasn’t barking.
Incongruity is the mother of insight
Their statistically-robust survey showed that “personal sales connection” was dead last among the reasons why a purchasing professional would buy their product. It was buried far below other factors such as price, quality, service, and the efficiency of the product in the customer manufacturing plant.
Based on this survey data, my customer cut back on expensive personal selling initiatives and wisely re-allocated its resources into aggressive plans for R&D, product improvement, and new services the procurement professionals were asking for in the research.
I assumed the competitors would have access to the same sentiments from their purchasing contacts and yet they were INCREASING their investment in personal selling. And in every region where they spent more on personal selling, their sales went up … and ours went down.
The research clearly said this should not be the case. I expected the dog to bark “personal selling does not work any more.” but the dog was NOT barking. This was a clue. I needed to dig deeper.
The magic of incongruity
After interviewing members of the sales team I came to a conclusion.
The purchasing people were lying on the survey.
The marketing team had done a wonderful job with the research but when the purchasing people took the survey, they answered the way they thought they SHOULD answer, not in a way that reflected their true behavior. As a matter of fact, these folks bought from their sales buddy friends, pure and simple. As long as the quality and cost was competitive, these relationships really did matter.
Now, here’s the real question.
I guarantee you that I am neither more experienced nor smarter than the marketing professionals on my client team. Why was I able to solve the problem?
Because people tend to ignore incongruity. We are seduced by data that supports our world view.
In our busy world, it is easy to rely too heavily on the analytics at face value without taking the time to consider the nuances, the quirks, the little shivers in The Matrix that lead to real insight and truth.
In this era of Big Data, we have access to an unprecedented amount of information. But it still takes insight into the “Little Data” to make marketing work. Managers should rarely take a report at face value.
If the dog isn’t barking, dive deeper. Incongruity is a key to wisdom!
This post was written as part of the Dell Content Partners program, which provides news and analysis on technology, business and gadget-geek culture. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent Dell’s positions or strategies.
Top and bottom illustrations courtesy Flickr CC and Pets Adviser
Second illustration courtesy Flickr CC and Andrea Arden