Turing, Thiel and customer satisfaction data

customer satisfaction data

It’s not often that $10 changes your world.

But this weekend I spent $10 on a copy of “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel.

Peter co-founded PayPal. Then after selling it to eBay in 2002, he founded Palantir (Palantir is a private software company and it’s bigger than both WorkDay and ServiceNow.

This book is ostensibly about how to build a great company, which is why I bought it. But I found “Zero to One” to be much more involving, philosophical and wide-ranging than I could ever have imagined.

It’s a call to arms to modern society to have a firm plan to tackle humanity’s biggest challenges head on, rather than just hoping things will improve on their own. It talks about a Europe that’s sleepwalking into obscurity and pessimism – something I have long been concerned about. And it provides scintillating insight into how to build a creative, profitable business that solves real problems.

I was still reading it at long gone midnight last night, determined to finish it. If you’re going to read it, I’d advise dedicating a whole sitting to it – it’s so absorbing. And leave time for a good spot of thinking and reflection afterwards.

As part of my role as CEO of Customer Thermometer I attend so many meetings about customer satisfaction measurement, collecting customer satisfaction data and what to do about it all.
In many cases I see companies drowning in data, but fixing very little on the ground for real customers.

Big data customer satisfaction

Reading Thiel’s book joined up a lot of these thoughts and made it clear to me how we should all be thinking about, and reacting to, computer-crunched customer data. It’s less about thinking that digitisation is the answer and moving towards the best blend of computing power and human ingenuity and intervention.

It’s only about a year ago I read Andrew Hodges’ beautiful, moving and perceptive biography of Alan Turing.

This biography was one of the first books I’d read which successfully laid out the improved actions and conclusions that can take place when computers and humans collaborate. A harmony Thiel calls ‘complementarity’.

Reading Hodges’ book, it’s clear that Turing’s computers alone didn’t crack the Enigma code.

They simply provided the muscle power required to crunch the vast amounts of data contained in the German transmissions. The combination of human operators’ insight and computing power saved the day. As Hodges says, “It took the analysts’ work into quite a new realm of enchantment. In one of the main uses, the human and the machine would work together”.

Thiel paints a similar picture. He describes how, as humans, we have the tendency to assume computers will get better and better at decision making and become more and more like us. There’s a sense that we have, in some cases, abdicated decision making to computers.

But, Thiel says, “big data is usually dumb data” and that “today’s companies have an insatiable appetite for data, mistakenly believing that more data always creates more value.”

He explains that whilst computers are incredible number crunchers and chess players, even Google’s most powerful supercomputer can only identify a picture of a cat with 75% accuracy. Something, he says, the average 4 year-old can do flawlessly.

computer cat for customer satisfaction

Cat recognition software…

Computers are good at spotting patterns in data sets too large for humans to ever comprehend. Thiel outlines how the tragedy of 9/11 could have been prevented if it had been possible to interrogate and then humanly-interpret all the available data at the time.

“Actionable insights can only come from a human analyst.” He says. And that we, “…have let ourselves become enchanted by big data only because we exoticize technology. We’re impressed with small feats accomplished by computers alone, but we ignore big achievements from complementarity because the human contribution makes them less uncanny.”

“…the most valuable companies in the future won’t ask what problems can be solved with computers alone. Instead, they’ll ask: how can computers help humans solve hard problems”

How does this relate to measuring customer satisfaction data?

Customer satisfaction is one such hard problem for many businesses. Companies we talk to are regularly drowning in customer satisfaction data, but there’s no human assessment, intervention, action or problem-solving on the ground.

Many companies seem to think that simply measuring customer satisfaction data in thousands of ways and publishing the results to various departments will solve our customer service issues.

It stands to reason that unless someone takes specific and individual action to rectify customer issues directly for the customer in question, the data itself is largely useless.

The echoes of big data upon which reports are compiled but action is not taken are there for all to see. Computers crunching surveys, questionnaires and results data can be harnessed ad infinitum but unless humans intervene in the customer servicing process at an actionable level, nothing’s going to change for customers on the ground.

I’d urge you to read “Zero to One” for many important reasons. It’s thought-provoking and concise. It will make you work smarter and better. It will help you gain purpose and direction.

And if it has the added bonus of helping your solicit and act upon your customer feedback more effectively, it will be $10 even better spent.