Learning from the edge cases (Part 2)

In my previous post, I mused on the subject of edge cases and the learning opportunity they provide. I want to touch on how this applies to customer analytics.

This weekend I read a blurb in the Washington Post Food section. A customer by the name of Anne Monahan complained about the “dark blue menus printed in black ink" at a local restaurant. “In dim light, the menus were nearly impossible to read," she remarked. The restaurant co-owner said that she hadn’t noticed the problem before, and vowed to change the hue of the menus the next day.

It would be easy to dismiss Ms. Monahan as an outlier and a whiner. After all, this complaint was rare. An edge case. But the restaurateur decided to respond to the issue. Perhaps other patrons were bothered by it, but hadn’t commented.

This is not to say that companies should be a slave to the edge case. But don’t throw them out. Listen to what they have to say and be willing to respond, because:

  • They may be the canary in the mindshaft — telling you something that others haven’t yet realized

  • They may be an extreme case of common behavior that shows up more subtly amongst other customers. Recognizing this behavior can only help you better meet customer needs in the future.

  • They may offer new ways to think about the business or customers. As I said in my last post, edge cases help define the boundaries of reality.

  • Collectively, outlier customers provide a service: they stress test the product and highlight unrealized strengths or weaknesses.

Of course, there is also much to learn from the ordinary cases — the mainstream customers. I think most companies already understand the ordinary. In fact, the ordinary is already deeply embedded in the business’ assumptions.

Most statistical analysis tells you: watch out for outliers. They are the data points that can screw up your averages. Because of their rarity, they aren’t deemed worth focusing on. I disagree.

I hope to return to this topic as we find ways to apply it at our clients.