What Really Matters Can’t Be Measured

Nick Francis | March 22, 2016

A hundred years ago, it was impossible for companies to quantify most of what they did to grow. “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half,” advertising pioneer John Wanamaker famously bemoaned.

Now people have access to mounds of data on everything from customer acquisition to long-term retention. Every aspect of a business’ marketing efforts seems trackable and testable. But what we have now is the inverse of Wanamaker’s problem.

It’s strange, but we actually have too much data. Studies have shown that giving someone a bunch of information about a problem does not necessarily help them solve it any better.

The extra information is often a distraction at best, and actively misleading at worst.

At Help Scout we’ve invested in things that an entirely data-driven approach would never have prescribed, because we know they work and measuring success to the dollar is less important. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been difficult, or rigorous: it’s really hard, and often unpredictable. But we’ve found the less measurable marketing channels are more defensible.

Get comfortable with uncertainty

The problem with data is that it has no way of knowing what makes your product or your business special. When you put all your trust in your metrics and the market, you lose the vision and perspective that led you to start your company in the first place. You blind yourself to the possibilities beyond the numbers, the opportunities that you have to create new things.

You lose touch with the things that matter.

Let’s say you’re considering delaying your project launch by six weeks so you can re-design a few critical flows in your app’s UI. On the one hand, delaying your launch means tying up x of your designers, each of whom gets paid $y per hour, and prevents them from working on other projects. Tack on an opportunity cost of $z.

On the other hand, dedicating those six weeks to polishing the experience could be the thing that really takes your product from good to great for customers. Maybe you had an eleventh hour design revelation that changed everything. That may be true. But you can’t pull up a spreadsheet a year later and prove it.

What makes working on the immeasurables so difficult is information asymmetry. You always have a clear picture of what it will cost to invest in them, but you can never really see the ROI as a single number. And that really bothers data nerds (I love you folks, I’m just making a point).

Unfortunately there’s no formula for working through this uncertainty. All you can do is remember it’s there and weigh your options. In the end, your decision will hinge on how deeply your company believes the immeasurables matter.

Don’t compromise on your values

“We often forget the symbiotic relationship between trust and ROI.” —Pete Plackshaw of NM Incite

One of the most difficult decisions we ever faced at Help Scout was all about information asymmetry. We’d decided to raise our prices from $15 per user to $20 back in February, and everyone was in agreement that we should do it. We were less certain about how this should affect our current customers.

For months, we debated two approaches:

  1. Grandfather existing customers for one year, then they pay $20/user.
  2. Allow customers to keep their price forever.

Experts on the subject will recommend Option #1, and it was what we planned on doing. We spent over two years improving the product without increasing the price and would give customers one year to prepare for the change. Most SaaS companies today take this approach.

Our model, which accounted for some churn, had Option #1 adding over $1.5m of revenue to the business next year just by updating the price for existing customers. So that was a factor as well.

As the launch got closer, it became clear that no one at Help Scout was comfortable with Option #1. People were losing sleep over it. That was when we realized that we’d paid way too much attention to the spreadsheet, and not enough attention to how this would impact our customers’ trust for Help Scout.

We figured the best investments we’ve made as a company were in immeasurables, so why stop now? We chose Option #2, betting on the fact that we can earn more than $1.5m of incremental revenue next year (and in subsequent years) by keeping our customers’ trust.

The immeasurable is your opportunity

When you make marketing decisions based on your values, you open up an incredible opportunity.

While everybody else is running cost/benefit analyses and waiting for spreadsheets to tell their business what to do and what products they should build, you’re going full throttle on what you know works. While they’re busy optimizing for the things they can systematize and test, you’re “optimizing” for an intangible factor that people don’t even see.

Great companies aren’t great (at least not in my view) because they can predict ROI: they’re great because they succeed on the immeasurables, and pursue them with ruthless dedication.

A different kind of help desk

We started Help Scout because we saw an entire industry—online help desks—ignoring the immeasurables. Five years ago, the companies dominating in the support space were all designed to appeal to executives who wanted 1) lower costs, 2) decrease support volume, and 3) resolve tickets as quickly as possible. Everyone was trying to figure out how to make support cheaper, faster, and more efficient.

Our approach was both completely rational and completely immeasurable: focus first on the customer experience. Make it seamless and personalized. Make sure there’s no portal to sign into or ticket number to memorize.

Do everything we can to make someone’s support experience a delightful one.

Instead of treating support as a cost to be reduced, our approach is to treat it more like a marketing investment in an immeasurable: customer trust. That’s why Help Scout looks pretty different from other available options. It’s an honor to work daily with people and companies that invest in the immeasurable and enjoy using our product because of this approach.

How do you measure delight?

If you think about the companies you really love, it’s never for entirely rational reasons. The products they make deliver value way beyond our expectations. We rave about them to everyone we know, but we never quite know why.

Creating something that inspires delight and excitement is an unpredictable process.

You can try to systematize it, but in the end you’ll miss out on a bunch of opportunity.

The companies that people really love are the ones that stretch the boundaries of what’s possible. With care, passion, and craftsmanship, they create the thing that we didn’t even know we needed, and that we can never again live without. That’s something you just can’t measure.


About the author: Nick Francis is a co-founder and CEO at Help Scout.