On being ... a measurable outcome

By Ingrid Sapona

At a recent lunch meeting, a client was expressing her frustration because she had been tasked with coming up with a way to measure success on a project that we were working on. I did not envy her having to do this. Her frustration became mine when she explained that whether there’s more work for me will depend on whether the next phase gets funded – and that will depend on whether she can come up with such measures.

Since the work was ultimately going to be put up on a website, we considered the usual things like page views and clicks. While such statistics have the appeal of being objective, they don’t tell you anything about whether people find the information useful, or even if they’re using it for the purpose we intended.

The other day the client called to tell me the good news: the next phase got funded. Whew… We then proceeded to discuss the next things she wanted me to work on. I don’t know what she ended up proposing in terms of measurable outcomes, but as we discussed the next phase, we agreed that as we move forward we had better give some thought to what we’ll use as measures of success.

The need for measurable outcomes is all the rage in the business world. For the most part, I understand the point of considering these things in a business context. After all, if you’re manufacturing nails and you’re making a profit of $1 per 100 nails and you produce 10,000 nails/day, that may seem pretty good – until you realize that if you re-tool to make screws, you could make a profit of $1 per 50 screws and you can still produce 10,000/day. Or, if you’re a sales person and you make seven sales worth $X, you can say your efforts contributed $Y to the bottom line. But, even in business, there are things that might be subject to some objective measurement, but whose true value is subjective. Indeed, for most of my work the most meaningful measure of success is subjective: does my client like what I’ve done for them?

Over the weekend friends and I were getting together for a pot luck barbecue and I decided I’d try a new appetizer recipe. It was something I’d seen on a cooking show that I love. The ingredients were straightforward and tasty, but it was a bit complicated, as many of this chef’s recipes are. One of the things that appealed to me about the recipe is that the end result is individual servings for each person, as opposed to a bowl or platter that gets passed around.

Because the recipe involved a number of steps, you could make the components in advance and assemble it the day of, though once it was altogether, it still needed to chill a few hours before serving. I had anticipated that assembly would be the fussiest part, and I was right. Because I had seen the chef’s end product, I knew what it was “supposed” to look like and as I worked, I had my doubts. As I painstakingly layered the ingredients into each ramekin, I wondered whether the end result would be worth it.

That afternoon I was talking to my sister and I told her I had spent much of the morning making the appetizer. I also mentioned that I doubted I’d be making that recipe again because it was a heck of a lot of work. My sister thought I was crazy to try something new, especially if it was complicated. I explained that I wasn’t worried about whether it would taste good – I knew it would be delicious because the ingredients were all yummy. (I do a lot of baking and I’ve come to realize that it’s pretty hard to ruin something whose main ingredients are butter and sugar – I mean, really. I was confident the same rule would apply here.) No, my concern – as it is with most desserts I make – was whether (when they came out of the ramekins) they would look anything like the picture in the recipe!

Well, that evening, as my friends slaved over the barbecue, I slipped into the kitchen to plate the appetizers. To my delight, they looked fantastic. My immediate reaction was “well, I guess they were worth the effort!” My view was confirmed as my friends ooh’d and ahh’d even before they tasted them. (They were even more impressed when they tried them and found they tasted as good as they looked!)

The next day I input the recipe in my computer, which is how I keep track of recipes I like and would make again. And, as I added a note to the recipe to the effect that it was well worth the effort – in terms of taste AND presentation – I thought of my client’s need to come up with a measure of success. I laughed as I realized I had subconsciously applied a measure of success to the appetizer recipe. Indeed, though my “was it worth the effort” test is clearly subjective, it is something that I apply to lots of things …

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


On being … loyal

By Ingrid Sapona

Language evolves and the meanings of words change. Take the word cool, for example. Early on it related to temperature. At some point it came to mean calm, self-controlled, and even lacking in friendliness. And of course, since the mid-20th century it’s become a synonym for very good, fashionable, and hip.

As someone who makes a living as a wordsmith, I try to stay on top of evolving definitions. With that in mind, I looked up the word loyal, because I’m sure its meaning has changed. I was surprised to see that Merriam-Webster.com still defines it as: “having or showing complete and constant support for someone or something”.

Recent interactions I’ve had with a few companies I’ve done business with for many years have convinced me that the definition of loyal has come to mean something akin to sucker. The first hint came in a call I made to the circulation department of the newspaper I subscribe to. One of my biggest pleasures is starting the day with a hot cup of coffee and the morning paper and I’ve had seven-day home delivery for ages.

A few years ago I was reviewing my monthly expenses with a view toward trimming them. I was surprised to realize that I was paying nearly $500/year for the newspaper. Because I couldn’t see myself giving up the paper completely, I phoned to find out how much I’d save if I just got Monday-Friday delivery. The customer service person looked up my account and offered me a good deal for six months. She also said that at the end of that period I should phone again and ask about the best rate. Happy to keep the same service at reduced rates, I agreed and dutifully made note to call again in six months.

Since then, whenever I notice on my credit card statement that the cost for the paper seems to have gone up, I phone and ask for the best rate and they always have some deal for me. In May, however, when I phoned they said they aren’t offering any deals for current subscribers. When I mentioned that they always have, I was told now they only give deals after three months of service at the regular rate and since I had just come off a deal, I was not eligible for any other deals for three months, at which time I could call back and grovel. (Ok, grovel is my word, she said I could ask…)

I’ve subscribed for a long time and have played their game of calling for the best rate – instead of just being given it automatically (out of, say, respect and loyalty?) – for quite some time. Irritated, I cancelled the subscription. The customer service rep said she understood and she explained that because they charged in advance, I’d continue getting the paper until July 1. So that was that. I guess the newspaper business is doing well enough that they don’t need me…

Then, two weeks later I got a call from an independent subscription service that works for the newspaper. Apparently they were notified that I cancelled my subscription and they offered me a good price if I were to continue subscribing. I asked why the customer service rep at the paper couldn’t offer me a deal and I was told that’s just the way it works. I took the deal and she said that when it’s about to expire (in six months), she’d phone again with whatever deal is available at that point. Though irritated, I took the deal.

Then last week I was shocked when I saw on my phone/cable/internet bill that the cost of my phone service had gone up by 22.5% in one month (that’s before taxes). Over the past few months I’ve gotten notification that different services would be going up by a dollar or two, but to have this kind of jump in the phone charges seemed excessive, so I called to inquire.

The customer service rep explained that a promotion I had expired. Having dealt with the company for a long time, I knew enough to ask about getting the promotion reinstated. As expected, the customer service person didn’t have authority and so I had to specifically ask to be connected with their “loyalty department”.

I first learned about this special department a few years ago when I called about a mysterious $1 charge. After complaining about it I was put through to someone at the loyalty department. After explaining my frustration, the loyalty fellow offered to review my bill and usage to see what he could do. By the end of the call he had reduced my overall costs by over 30%, and increased the amount of band width on my internet service at no cost. Astonishing, I know! At the same time, it irked me that I had to challenge a charge in order for them to show they value my loyalty.

As a result of my most recent call about the 22.5% increase, the loyalty department offered a small adjustment, which was better than nothing. But after hanging up, I was angry – mostly with myself for feeling like a sucker for being loyal rather than shopping around for a better deal from some other company.

So, these incidents make it obvious that the definition of loyalty is changing. And, as a result, I suppose our behaviour as consumers has to change too. I guess special treatment is now awarded only to customers who demand it and who are willing to walk away from companies they’ve done business with for years. I guess words aren’t the only things that evolve – consumer attitudes have to too.

So, I wonder if my new phone provider will be any different. Probably not, but I’ll enjoy the honeymoon while it lasts!

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona