Author Attacks Harvard! (Sort of... well, not really... OK, not at all)

  • Written By: Dave and the White Paper Critics
  • Published: October 16 2007

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White paper: Why One Number Is Not Enough

Editor A (the nominally genial one)
This one caught my eye as it crossed our desks a while ago.

“What number?” I asked. “A hundred? One? Pi? Do tell me more.”

It turns out that the one number in question represents a customer’s “willingness to recommend.” Not the sexiest of key performance indicator (KPI) headings (I prefer the “you bringing a friend next time?” swinger approach), but whatever floats your boat.

The author seems to be taking issue with a Harvard Business Review article called “The One Number You Need to Grow.” Or rather, not with the article itself, but some companies’ response to it, which (we’re told) was to ditch all other customer feedback in favor of the One Number.

At first glance, the white paper thus seems to veer into I-have-no-real-reason-to-write-this territory.

Editor B (the nominally cranky one)
My first glance has yielded a similar response. I couldn’t help but think that there was a lot of talk and, well, not a whole lot of action in this white paper. Doesn’t it stand to reason that organizations shouldn’t rely on one number or metric in monitoring the health of their customer relationships? And, what incites a customer’s willingness to recommend a company and/or its products to a friend seems to be a more complex matter that inherently could not be an accurate “one number.”

And it might be worth taking into consideration how that “one number” came into being: Under what circumstances was the customer given the poll that asked the question “Would you recommend us/our products to a friend?”

With an in-store form, at the end of the sales maneuver, the customer already thinking about her next immediate priority (finding a washroom/stopping to fill the tank/etc)?

Over the phone, with pots boiling and kids screaming in the background?

Or an on-line survey, the customer surrounded by coffee cups, take-out containers, and the thrum of a busy office?

Was it initiated by a customer sales representative, or was it done of the customer’s own free will? What time of day was it? Was the customer hungry and distracted, or relaxed and ready-willing-and-able to take the time to give his honest opinion?

In other words, was the recommendation simply an off-the-cuff way for the customer to get the sales rep out of his hair, or was his impetus for making the recommendation based on his desire to communicate his true satisfaction with the service and the product?

As the white paper points out, “the success of an organization is a complex issue and rarely the result of one factor.”

As my aunt would say, “Darling, you have flair for the obvious.”

Let it also be said that the success of a white paper is a complex issue, and rarely the result of a one-dimensional academic attack on one small thesis.

I also wondered about the function of white papers: aren’t they meant to pique the reader’s interest in improving her business, preferably with some new-fangled software tool? I was kind of expecting the arguments presented against the “one number” approach to lead into a description of a well-rounded customer relationship management (CRM) suite of solutions.

Not that I have any problem with someone giving away his ideas for free instead of selling a product.

It is tempting to say that this is not really a white paper. But perhaps that is not a fair enough assessment, as one definition of “white paper” states that it is “a short treatise, the purpose of which is to educate industry customers.”

Editor A (the nominally genial one)
Yeah, that thrum thing will kill your numbers every time.

I disagree with your point about the function of a white paper, though. I think a well-written document can highlight domain expertise and establish a “brand” of thought leadership.

The question is, though, does this one do it?

I’m not convinced it does. This white paper is burdened with platitude overload, with such rare jewels as “remember that retention operates one customer at a time” and “beware survey overload.”

And whether you translate that into one number or many, it all gives the same result: I’m not coming back until you give me a reason to. And I haven’t seen it yet.

Editor B (the nominally cranky one)
I do agree with your assessment that a white paper can be (in fact, should be) a source of “domain expertise.” If the writer has original ideas that have never before been, well, branded. I can’t help but think that many of the key points white paper enumerated towards the end could be found in most first or second year business administration program textbook. And should my eyebrows go up over the fact that the author is delving back three years (at the time of his writing the white paper) into the archives of the Harvard Business Review? Isn’t it more or less a given that business theories and practices change almost as quickly as the market place itself changes—and that therefore, the author of the white paper doesn’t have to spend quite so much time arguing against a point that might generally be considered outdated anyway?

I suppose to be fair to the writer and his thoughts, branded or otherwise, this white paper contains helpful tidbits for small business owners whose official business education consists of a couple of workshops in how to throw together a business plan model and how to apply for a loan.

Verdict: 5 out of 10
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