• April 28, 2017
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

You Can’t (Mis)Handle the Truth!

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I've been thinking of late about what my job as a technology industry analyst really is. Lots of things are expected of us. We should have general familiarity with as many vendors as possible, of course, as well as a working knowledge of the differences in their capabilities. We should understand what their customers’ needs are and how they’re likely to change. But we don’t have to be right. It’s nice but not always necessary. Weird, huh?

Recently, I got hung up on a research note, hesitating and procrastinating because I felt like some of my conclusions seemed unsupported. It turns out that analysts aren’t journalists; we should report the truth when possible, but a large part of the job is taking educated guesses. Not only is it OK to speculate, in many cases it’s actively encouraged.

Sometimes it’s less important to make definitive statements that predict the future than it is to stimulate discussion and get people thinking about the possibilities. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be right, since a lot of what we do counts as advice, but there are limits. You know that “safe harbor” boilerplate that corporations show before any presentation that includes “forward-looking statements”? I could have that tattooed on my forehead because I’m making those statements all the time.

This has been difficult to wrap my mind around, because we have reached a point in society wherein the truth of a matter is secondary to the way it makes people feel. It’s less important that a statement is a mischaracterization, or even an outright and easily provable lie, if it motivates voters and supporters. The phrases “alternative facts” and “fake news” have entered the lexicon, and they don’t seem to be going away.

No matter how much evidence exists to support one side of an argument, it can be rendered irrelevant by “gut feeling” and repetition of lies. It’s often said that a lie travels faster than the truth, and the bigger the better. A truly outlandish whopper takes off because it appeals to our desire to tell stories. Debunking the lie is always late because you can’t do it before the lie exists, and by that time the lie is a part of everybody’s consciousness. Any landlord will tell you how hard it is to evict squatters, and lies are the most insidious squatters of them all.

I know, I know—this isn’t a political column, and I’m pretty sure I have readers on both sides of any issue I care to bring up. But I’m honestly worried about this development, not only as a citizen but as a person whose career is built on verifiable facts and good-faith speculation. If valid customer data means anything to you, you should be worried too.

If a vendor made an outrageous claim as to how its product is selling, or how the product stacks up against competitors, we would pounce. The responsible parties would be fired, their companies might be sued. We’ve had truth-in-advertising laws for a century to fight back against harmful and costly BS. The liars are the bad guys in the business world, because it’s not OK to lie to make a profit.

We have CRM as a system of record because it enables us to put together a cohesive picture of who our customers are, what they want, and how they feel about us. Salespeople and contact center managers live in worlds of data; we could argue that marketers came late to the table, but they also rely on facts and figures to prove their impact. All of that goes out the window in a post-truth world. “A lot of people are saying we’ve got 75 percent market share in the Northeast Corridor” shouldn’t have any weight if it can’t be proven, but similar statements drown out actual facts if they’re repeated loudly and often enough.

Yeah, I know that in some cases there is no single truth. I know that perspective is important, and differences of opinion are why we have horse races. But we need to start applying the smell test more often to those differences of opinion, especially if one side of an argument smells more like what the horse drops.

Marshall Lager is the greatest writer on the topic of CRM and customer engagement in the world. Everybody says so, a lot of really smart people. Get more of the truth at marshall.lager@ovum.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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