The Heartbreak of Score-itis


It starts with a nagging itch that won’t go away, accompanied by painful bumps in the quarterly sales results. Before long, panic sets in and an urgent call for help is made.

“We have no idea what our customers are thinking! Since we desperately need to control everything that they think about our company, we want to know what they are thinking right now! We need research!”

I need to insert a caveat here. I am a career marketer and have been told that I’m a pretty good one at that. I’ve won awards and boosted sales to the point that my boss once called me on vacation, begging for a way to “turn it off!” Granted that only happened once, but I’ve had my moments.

I’ve also done a ton of research, worked with some of the top research companies in the U.S. and even personally met George Gallup Jr. He was a really wonderful guy, by the way. Didn’t ask a lot of questions. An incredible listener.

Much of the time, companies want opinions and numbers for the wrong reasons. They want to perpetuate the illusion of thought control where it really doesn’t exist. And they have a desperate need to keep score; especially the sales staff, who will seize at any opportunity to blame factors other than themselves for poor sales results. They pour over the research looking for clues. Almost to the point of religious compulsion, like Dan Brown on a code-breaking bender. It’s the heartbreak of score-itis and it causes companies to do crazy stuff.

Warning – I have a strange talent for finding new and creative ways to burst people’s bubbles. Especially people I work with. Like the time I told a group of fellow marketers that most marketing is as effective as waving a dead chicken over your head while dancing in the moonlight.

Sometimes it’s actually less effective, because at least with the chicken you’ll have something to eat later on that evening.

The fact is that most companies spend a load of time and pallets of money on ineffective marketing and ineffective research because both have been raised to the level of rank superstition.

Want proof? Go ask your boss what your company needs to do to figure out what customers are thinking. She or he will most likely say, “Hey, how ’bout we do a couple of focus groups? We’ll bring in eight or so customers at a time and have riveting discussions with them!”

This is so wrong on so many levels that I hardly know where to begin. Should I start with the chicken? The egg? The dancing in the moonlight?

Here’s why it’s wrong. I’ve witnessed scores of focus groups, have participated in, funded and conducted them. So yes – I’m a hypocrite, an official subscriber to the Hypocritic’s Oath. But I have learned a thing or two in the process.

Asking a paid group of eight or so people what they think about your products or services is like asking them what they think about the Cubs vs. the White Sox. Oh, you’ll get opinions all right. Some participants will lend their full-throated support for and against one team or the other. In their sports-crazed fervor, they’ll even draw responses from the other people in the room who don’t really care about either team, or sports in general. The latter will talk because they feel guilty if they don’t. They are getting paid, after all! A couple of people in the group will look lost and confused, because that’s their life’s mission. Then the facilitator will write up a fully illustrated report that purports to represent what people really think about the Cubs vs. Sox. Or a new yogurt that tastes like flan. Or a frequent buyer’s club that rewards you when you buy stuff that’s not on sale. Etc. etc., ad infinitum.

And it’ll all be hogwash. Expensive well-packaged hogwash, but hogwash nonetheless. Because focus groups aren’t really research. Run correctly, their value is to get a broad range of responses from a random group of people that may help guide you when you do the real research. Quantitative research and behavioral data analysis with a representative sample. That’s how you can keep score on the customer.

Why aren’t focus groups by themselves real research?

  • Because focus groups represent such small, inconclusive samples.
  • Because the discussions are artificial. Although the facilitator tries to ask the same questions each time for consistency, it’s a lot like herding cats.
  • Because the participants are getting paid for their opinions, therefore they have to care, even if they don’t.
  • Because that lady in the corner with the angry scowl has completely taken over the discussion and has a real axe to grind.
  • Because it’s so important for the facilitator to “position” the findings as if they have real value, otherwise the facilitator doesn’t have a reason to facilitate.

By themselves,  they represent zero value for any purpose other than your boss’s ability to tell his boss, “Well, ya know,  we just did some research, took the customer’s pulse, so sales results should be going up real soon.”

Are we dancing yet? Is the moon full? Is the chicken still warm?

So what’s the answer? Do some real quantitative research and pay attention to the data you already have, for cryin’ out loud! Concentrate on what your customers do vs. what they say. It’s their actual behavior that makes the sales quotas, not their opinions.

Need an illustration?  Microsoft at various points in its history, i.e., most of it, has been one of the most hated companies in the world. Everybody makes fun of their product. Everybody complains about their technical support, the bugs, the viruses, the planned obsolescence, the obscene profits. And almost everybody uses it. Even Mac users.

So instead of listening to that scowling person in the focus group, who has a lot to say but little of any real value to contribute, Microsoft probably spends more time collecting real data on what other gizmos their customers buy. Why? Because Microsoft won’t ultimately be vanquished by other computer software providers.  They’ll be undone when people toss their computers in the trash pile because a simple cell phone app does it all.

Why spend so much time keeping score in the game you’re playing, when the game is about to change – and the winner will be the company who changes it?

Does your company have score-itis? Hey, put some salve on that before it spreads.

Want to rock the boat without getting fired?