A true story about experts and statistics

7 Mar

Some 30 years ago as a young management writer, my role model was Peter Drucker. I only met him a few times, the last being in a small group seminar. At one point, in that heavy German accent and with a twinkle in his eye, he told us that one of the benefits of being a management guru was that, if you were stuck for a statistic, you could make one up with little fear that anyone would question what you say. Later, I turned this into a hypothesis, which I determined to test: Any statistic given by an acknowledge expert, with sufficient authority of tone, that seems credible, will be accepted by most people without question.  

I tested the hypothesis at a conference on customer care shortly after. I had prepared the bogus statistic that “On average, it costs at least five times as much to acquire a new customer as to retain an old one”. I often tell groups of students and managers on workshops the story of how this much-quoted statistic originated and point out that 87% of the literature on customer care still refers to it, usually without any attempt at attribution. About one in four people immediately recognise that this statistic is also made up (the rest catch on when the more perceptive ones laugh). Even when I point out that 12% of them will have believed the one in four statistic, it’s hard for some people to recognise that this, too, is an invention. And so ad infinitum… 


© David Clutterbuck, 2014 

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