So What?

Sales numbers are down? Make your metrics actionable by asking the right questions.

So What?

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As a senior analyst, I’ve been approached with requests and fire-drills from stakeholders. Pipeline is down year over year, conversion rates are below benchmarks. We need a dashboard that shows the mean, median, and mode of X trending over Y. This chart should be a darker shade of purple, etc. You name it, I’ve heard it. And it is understandable. Marketing, Sales, and every other business unit needs real-time and actionable insight into the successes and failures of their day-to-day operations so that they can react. So when something appears to go wrong in the process, they can become nervous and immediately want to fix it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in building the models, analyzing the distributions, and compiling the comprehensive reports that will help support those critical business decisions. But throughout my career, I’ve learned that in almost all cases, taking a step back and asking the question — “So what?” — before immediately fixing the issue at hand can help everyone to reevaluate. We can see not only how urgent the request is, but determine better metrics to answer it, or see it result in a more actionable request altogether. It might seem strange at first, but let’s see the “So what?” test in action.

For example, say you are an analyst and you are meeting with a stakeholder, gathering requirements for a shiny new dashboard. “We need to measure [blank] metric this year vs. last year.” You would just jot that little nugget down and move on to the next one, right?

Wrong.

Take a minute to slow down and ask “So what?” One way to do this is to create a hypothetical for your stakeholder. “Say that metric is down 20%, what are you going to do about it? Can you actually affect the outcome (i.e., is it actionable)? Would it be back up 20% the next week?” Questions like these will get them thinking about how they will use the metric instead of the fact that they have always wanted it or were told they need it.

Your timing in these instances is crucial, because you have the opportunity to consider what will truly add value and what will truly result in the most actionable insight. Here’s a great example of when that’s most true and a moment when the “So what?” test does its best work. Metric B is down 50% from last quarter! Now would be a great time to slide back from your desk, lock your computer, and begin running around frantically, right?

Wrong.

So what if we’ve declined 50% in that area. How do you know if it’s good or bad? Does that follow a similar trend we’ve been seeing all year or have seen in the past? Is the metric seasonal or cyclical? How does that compare to what you see in the industry among your competition?  Before you start spending more money, contracting more agencies, or scrutinizing business units, take a step back and think.

Here’s another benefit: when you ask “So what?” it can lead to the real business question. And sometimes, after you discover the true underlying issue, you’ll find that the proposed metric isn’t actually even the best one to measure that area or answer that question. Let’s look at a more concrete example. “We’re up 100% in lead generation this quarter!” Whoop whoop. It’s a crime being this awesome. Break out the champagne, right?

Wrong.

In this situation, asking “So what?” can lead you to discover that actually all that growth was from just purchasing two million leads this year and only one million last year. Perhaps a better metric is actually inbound leads. It passes the “So what?” test because it answers the questions: “Are people learning about us?” “Are we driving demand?”

And the best part of the “So what” test is that you can apply it more than once. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. So what, we’re driving demand; that doesn’t mean those people learning about us are the ones that will eventually buy from us. Maybe a large portion of those are giving us bad info. Perhaps a better metric is actually new inbound leads that move on to qualified deals. It passes the “So what?” test because it answers the question: “Are we driving right demand to result in pipeline creation?” A question derived from a question: the “So what?” test knows no limits (just don’t tear a hole in the universe).

Of course, there aren’t hard and fast rules for this. But if you don’t already, try asking “So what?” more often, and share your success stories from it in the comments below!

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